Manager Mysteries & Mishaps Podcast

Helping employees avoid job burnout. [Interview]

An interview with Paul Gomez, Director of Organizational Development at Children's Mercy Hospitals, covers different aspects of job burnout, like how people managers can help their teams navigate or avoid burnout, the importance of being curious about team members, and even helping teams build resilience.


Think about the last time you felt absolutely exhausted after you were done working for the day. Like you were just drained of energy, whether in your body or your mind. Now move that up a notch to feeling exhausted after work every single day. Or think about a time you noticed a team member acting distant. Their mind was on other things, they were slower than normal to respond to emails or calls. They just didn't seem there anymore, you know? Or even think about when someone became more negative. And I mean consistently negative, like someone being cynical about everything, not just one disagreement or something. 

Those are all burnout symptoms. Things you feel when you're experiencing job burnout. Feeling frustrated, apathetic, cynical, or exhausted because of your job. Burnout itself is an interesting term because in the most technical sense, burnout is a fire that totally destroys something. 

So when it's applied to job burnout, this is someone who is having a part of them destroyed. Their fire or their engagement, interests, motivation, energy, that's all being snuffed out like blowing out a candle or pouring water on a fire. That's what's happening internally to someone who is going through job burnout 

But don't just take my word for it. This episode is unique when compared to all other episodes before it. In the past it's only been my voice. But now and from time to time, and in the future, I'll be spotlighting individuals with expertise and/or experience in people management. 

I had a chance to interview Paul Gomez, Director of Organizational Development at Children's Mercy Hospitals. Throughout the interview, we covered different aspects of job burnout, like how people managers can help their teams navigate or avoid burnout, the importance of being curious about team members, and even helping teams build resilience. 



With increasing job demands being put on employees like longer hours, more workload, there is a higher frequency of job burnout. How can people managers handle and navigate that burnout? 

Thanks for the question. I think what I would say to a listener would be to think about the relationship, the working relationship, as a reciprocal one. Where employee inputs and the employee takeaways are... it's kind of an exchange, if you will. I think about, to your point, the question of multiple demands, increasing demands is kind of the inputs and so what are they getting out of it? I think I'd start by suggesting really evaluate what the experience is for the employee and how you're balancing both the give and take in the work relationship. 


What kind of give and take things should managers look out for to evaluate? 

So I think the first place I would start would be on the emotional side of the relationship with work. I think employees really want to feel supported by their leaders. I think they want to feel appreciated by their leaders. I also think employees seek both autonomy in their work and to have a voice behind their work. So I think that would be one place to start. 

I think a second area I would focus on would be…I find burnout to be a highly individualized experience. So what one person may think of as balance is going to vary. So a leader's effort to, say, take the team out for lunch may feel like an imposition to some, while others may appreciate the time away from the day to day work, but really understanding those unique needs. 

Then I think the third key takeaway for me would be for a leader or for the listener of the podcast would be to simply think about what are the different tactics. People aren't often taught in their lifetime how to be resilient. So what I'm finding in some of the research really are some basic, basic strategies for dealing with burnout, such as breathing techniques, just calming the mind, calming the body. Hydration is another example of what happens to our brains when we're dehydrated. 

And of course the always take up five minutes and walk. I think sometimes people think, oh, I've got to go work out and drive to the gym and spend an hour and a half doing that. Part of the research just says, no, it really is about those five minute stretch breaks. Just get up and walk around the office for a bit if you can. 


So would you recommend that managers take those factors into mind? Like if they start to notice certain symptoms of burnout, like disengagement, not enjoying their work as much, they seem exhausted. Do you think managers should bring up those things of, are you drinking enough water? Are you breathing, get up, five-minute walk? Or are there different tactics that managers can take to help their team members through those instances? 

Those moments? I think it's more of a question/answer. I think when a leader starts to notice symptoms of burnout, I think they should get really curious about what they're seeing and what they're experiencing. Again, because it's such a highly individualized experience, I think it's important to find out what matters to that individual. So be curious. I think that's where when leaders are asking questions, I do think it goes back to again, some of the research into the topic that says when an employee feels supported by their leader, that alone reduces the potential for burnout. 


I liked that phrase when you said be curious because whenever I read or see things about manager tactics, tips, suggestions, be curious is often a thing of, oh be curious, be open to new ideas, be curious for creativity and innovation. It seems like you're framing in terms of be curious about the person, be curious from a caring perspective. 

That is correct. Again, I go back to my premise on the topic, which is, it is so highly individualized. I look at workplace environments and what's worked and what hasn't worked. I think some of the, I guess maybe mid-90s when we were talking about work-life balance as being a thing and organization's efforts to try to create work-life programs. I don't think they were as successful because they were built for the masses. That's not where I think burnout really goes. You could have somebody who is deeply passionate about their work, working 12 hours a day and they won't exhibit signs of burnout because they may not be. 

Whereas that might trigger different things for a different individual. So I would really focus again that curiosity of what does that give and take relationship look like for that person. 


Then how could managers best tap into, spark, continue that curiosity, so they're aware of those kinds of unique triggers in each individual within their team? 

So one of the things I appreciate and I like to leverage is the stay interview, which is the periodic check-in of what's bringing you back to work every day? What excites you about your work? I think the stay interview itself is a little at times misconstrued, oh it's a 45-minute conversation I need to have once a year. It's really just a series of questions over the course of time, like how are things going? How are you feeling about the work assignments that you've had? What's your balance look like? So really just periodically asking just different questions along the way. 


One topic you've mentioned consistently is this idea of resilience. Is it more from the perspective of a resilient manager, of managers training and coaching toward resilience in a team members? Both? 

That's a great question. I think it is both. I think it... I would put the responsibility on the individual who may be experiencing burnout to really understand what rejuvenates them, what gives them energy. Sometimes that's simply…are they taking time for reflection? The stories of people who drive in to and from work, do they have the radio on or are they in quiet mode, listening, thinking, sometimes that that's a re-energizer. 

I hear stories about people using that same commute to listen to podcasts. So it depends a little bit on that. But I would put that on the individual. I think what I would put on the... the responsibilities for the managers really is to create that supportive environment to ensure that they're recognizing the contributions of their people. 


So this is a slight change of topic, but it's still about burnout. With everything we've talked about, one question I have is slightly different, is what about burnout from team members who are constantly connected, like texting all the time, being on call, even emails because with increased technology, almost an invasion of technology into people's lives through work, that has also increased instances of burnout. So what's your assessment of that? 

So my assessment is we need to help individuals learn, I'll call it the off switch, which is how do I set boundaries? Because you're right, technology is ever present in our lives. It's easy to jump into your inbox from your mobile devices. If you're working at a multinational company, it becomes a 24/7 experience. So it really is about how do we create those spaces where we don't have technology? 

What I hear from people is oftentimes that simple things, again, like I don't put my mobile device on the nightstand when I go to bed. Or when we go to dinner, we put our mobile devices away or we don't take them. 

I recently heard of a dining experience, I believe it was in New York where as part of the service, when the waiter approaches the table, they bring a box and they ask everyone to put their phones in the box and they take it away, and when it comes back, it's got your phones and a candy bar. It's how do you create those kinds of experiences and really draw those boundaries of making sure that the moments that give you balance and therefore resilience and hopefully a burnout deterrent, you've got to create those spaces and I think we need to help people do that. 


The World Health Organization recently classified burnout as a syndrome, an occupational phenomenon with negative health implications. So in other words, you can now be diagnosed with burnout. What do you think about that? 

I think that supports what I've seen in the research as well. I think it's a growing issue, a growing concern. So in addition to the availability of technology permeating our lives along with that comes the increase in information flow. I think just the struggle for individuals to keep up with that is a significant issue. Therefore, I think that's why it's important both from an organizational perspective as well as a leader perspective to really talk to people around what they're doing to manage that. Because I do think it's an avoidable diagnosis. 


Along those lines, what do you think about people, especially managers and leaders, who think that burnout may just be an excuse that employees might use to get out of work? How would you address those kinds of managers and leaders? 

I think where I would talk to a leader on that question would be really to reground them on their role. Their role is to ensure their employees are engaged in their work, committed to the outcomes that they're trying to produce and therefore develop the right strategies to do that. So in a scenario where someone, a leader may be thinking that, “oh, this person is just using that as an excuse so they don't have to come to work,” there's a different issue there. I would certainly seek to understand what is that issue. I would encourage the leader not to use... not to dismiss the message of burnout because again, I think it is a growing concern that every leader should at least be curious about. 


Are there any trends in burnout or how burnout is treated or responded to that especially interests or intrigues you in some way? 

I haven't done enough research to know or to have a commentary on what's effective. I think our understanding of both the determinants of burnout are still emerging. So I think it's certainly something we are going to continue to hear more about and I think as individuals react to and respond with, I think we'll have a more informed viewpoint. 

I think for now I come back to helping people find the right strategies, the right work techniques and that again, it's going to look different. It could be, I'll talk from my example. One of the things that re-energizes me, that gives me energy is when I get to go see my kids’ games. So when they're in sport and I'm on the sideline, that feels like a good thing for me. So I've got a contract with my leader that says, hey, on this day I'm going to leave the office, maybe an hour early to be at my kid's swim, whatever it might be. I think it's really doing we can to ensure that those individuals do have that time because that's all we really can give back is that time. 



As a recap of this episode, Paul talked about a variety of tactics that people managers can do to handle and navigate job burnout. One tactic is to think about the reciprocal relationship between yourself and your team members. It's a give and take that you should balance, especially around the kinds of demands and boundaries you're placing on your team members. 

Another tactic is to frame job burnout as a highly individualized experience. Burnout symptoms may look and feel different from person to person, so you can't assume that everyone will act the same when they're feeling burnt out. Like even the symptoms I listed at the beginning of this episode, like exhaustion, cynicism, and all that are just general guidelines to consider.  

Through that tactic of individualizing burnout, it's important to be curious about your people. Find out what matters and doesn't matter to them. Conduct a stay interview, even if it's more informal, over lunch, or whatever. Just have a gauge of how your team members are doing and feeling, preferably with frequent conversations and support. 

And that's it for this episode! Join me next time on Manager Mysteries & Mishaps where I'll discuss stress management in the workplace. 

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