Five Practical Tips For Managing an Exhausted Team

Anna Obukhova, agile coach, managing partner ScrumTrek

A 2017 study commissioned by Travail Suisse showed that 41 % of all Swiss employees feel stressed and emotionally exhausted at work. One year later, Health Promotion Switzerland published the results of a three-year survey conducted in partnership with the University of Bern and the Zurich University of Applied Sciences, according to which nearly one in four workers in the country are in a ‘critical condition’ as a result of work-related fatigue and stress. The study has also shown that this leads to serious health problems and lower productivity which, in turn, leads to dramatic costs for Swiss companies — between CHF 5 and CHF 5.8 billion a year.

Any manager, seeing these findings, would naturally ask herself: ‘Well, what should I do? How should I go about managing these people who are almost stretched to the limit and have lost any enthusiasm?’ Luckily, Anna Obukhova, Managing Partner at ScrumTrek and an agile coach with 14 years of experience in the field, has shared 5 useful organizational strategies that would help change your business processes in order to help your tired employees, get them out of this state, and prevent them from getting overworked in the future.

1. Know your employees

We are aware that people vary by their abilities, their levels of experience, their overall value to the company. The same goes for their psychological resources — different people get tired and overworked at different rates, they have different internal ‘batteries’.

On average, an employee’s ‘battery’ is charged to 45%, and it’s a good rate: Here’s a result-oriented and well-motivated person who knows what she wants. But when a person begins to get overworked, these charge levels starts to drop in a downward spiral: At 35% people can’t efficiently plan their day and react to changing circumstances; at 20% they engage an ‘autopilot’ mode and don’t want to do anything. 15% and below is a level of complete burnout and clinical depression.

But usually, when we talk about tired employees we talk about ‘batteries’ charged to 20 to 35% — these people can work, but they are poorly motivated, they don’t want to get promoted, they might consider themselves incompetent and useless, and they can either be extremely irritable or extremely indifferent.

All these differences can be measured and accounted for — and that’s where you should start. Meet with all your employees on an individual basis to evaluate their level of exhaustion, to check their ‘battery’ charge levels, and to come up with an optimal strategy for each employee. Meet them once a week and invite even those people who seem  to be full of energy and whose condition doesn’t bother you — not only to be thorough but also to make it a routine process and to not make it look like you are punishing some of your employees.

2. Make it personal

If you gather your tired employees and tell them about new tasks facing them you are bound to receive a negative response: ‘What’s the point, nothing will come of it’. A personal meeting, hence, is safer: It will be easier for an employee to accept changes and get to work. The main thing to remember here: Don’t try to motivate your tired employees, don’t try to inspire them to storm new heights — for them this will seem as an extra pressure.

And in general, if your team is exhausted, forget about group meetings and events — about any attempts at uniting people into a single piece of machinery. This doesn’t work with tired people. To be a part of a team, you need to give a team a part of yourself; tired people have nothing to offer. They don’t even have enough resources to spend on themselves.

That’s also why you should start with personal meetings where you go through each employee’s personal problems and troubles (tip 1). With time, you’ll be able to draw on the support of the most energetic employees. But in the meantime you have to rely on your own resources only, because taking something from tired employees is a crime against your team.

3. Get to the root of the problem

People never get tired out of nowhere; there’s always something that has caused the exhaustion. Apart from that, the sense of fatigue tends to accumulate — if a person is overworked, she can’t ‘refresh’ herself by going on a one-week vacation; without structural changes in your work process, she’ll get more and more tired. So one of the first things you need to do is to get rid of any factors causing this accumulation of fatigue. If you don’t do this, nothing will restore the energy of your tired employees.

Most often, everything boils down to employees neglecting themselves. For them, the possibility of getting tired is not a concern, they don’t think about it. Instead, they concentrate on work tasks and try to adapt themselves to the needs of their team, and don’t track their own energy resources at all. Trying to be productive and on the same page with one’s team is a good thing, but people often forget about their other workload. For instance, one might think: ‘Everyone is going to a brainstorming session tonight, so should I’. And nevermind that ‘everyone’ have been working since afternoon whereas ‘I’ came into work at 8 to go through extra tasks.

Hence, a good way to start approaching a tired employee would be by explaining the concept of one’s ‘battery’. As always, be personal: With some people, it’s better to emphasise caring about oneself; with other, more team-oriented, people, you should point out the fact that an exhausted employee doesn’t bring any value to the company. Teach your employees to adequately measure their abilities.

So, ignoring one’s own needs is one of the two main mistakes leading to the accumulation of fatigue. The second one is the ‘If I’m not tired I haven’t worked enough’ approach. People tend to keep going until they can’t. But this fatigue will accumulate with each passing day, and their ‘battery’ will eventually die. There’s a simple solution: Teach your employees to measure the success of their day’s work not by how tired they’ve become but by how many tasks they’ve completed.

4. Simplify (but don’t oversimplify)

By removing the reasons for tiredness, you will eliminate its subsequent accumulation — the ‘battery’ won’t be running low anymore. But you also need to charge it — to bring people to their original, energetic selves. Hence, the standard workload is not an option at the moment. Create special conditions so that people will have time to recover.

But that doesn’t mean simplifying the tasks themselves: Many people, by their nature, won’t be ready to switch to a ‘partial mode’ and will desperately try to prove their worth. Instead, you need to simplify the work process — the way of dealing with tasks.

Give your tired employees tasks that are familiar to them and that can be completed in several simple steps. If completing a task can be seamlessly simplified, do it. You can also set up rituals that would help your employees start the habit of working in the state of flow. And the ‘battery’ will start charging up.

It is extremely important to emphasise the moment of achieving the result. Support from superiors and general confidence have been cited as stress-reducing aspects. You have to show your employees that they are not useless and they do bring something to the table: They take on tasks and successfully complete them.

5. Get rid of extra stuff and be patient

For a month or two while your team is recovering, get rid of anything you can do without. Forget about conducting endless meetings, learning new methods, and trying new techniques. Keep your objectives and processes simple. And don’t expect your employees to be capable of self-organization — tired people need support and a leader who will direct their efforts.

When they have recovered, you can go back to your business as usual. But going back should also be incremental: Make your tasks harder notch by notch, add new elements into the mix one by one. Do not — I repeat — do not hurry: if you notice that people start underperforming and getting tired when given extra tasks, delicately move the workload to the previous level of complexity and stay on it for some time longer.

Bonus: Remind people that there is such thing as tomorrow

If people are tired and overworked, they don’t think about the future; they don’t have the energy. If people are burned out, they think that there is no future at all: For them, there’s nothing at the horizon, there’s only bleak and depressing ‘here and now’. In order to overcome this, you, as a leader, have to constantly tell your employees about the plans of a project, a client, a product. By doing so, you will change your employees’ mindsets — they will start to see that their team have a future and there’s a place for them in this future. Hence, there is a future for them, too. This will help reduce their levels of anxiety and stress and let them work more comfortably.

This article first appeared in Forbes, written in Russian by Anna.

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