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Equip managers to extinguish workplace burnout

Sixty-one percent of surveyed IT professionals in SA report feeling burned out at work – are you part of the problem or the solution?
Angela de Longchamps
By Angela de Longchamps
Johannesburg, 12 Jul 2023

Discovery Health calculated that depression cost South Africa more than R218 billion in lost productivity and R190 billion in presenteeism. Many recognise this as a secondary pandemic, and HR departments and employee assistance programmes (EAPs) have been hard at work over the last few years as both physical and resulting mental illness incidents have increased. 

Because of the above-mentioned shifts, managers have needed to take on a larger role with regards to employee wellness. However, in most IT companies, managers are promoted technical specialists.

Most technical specialists are experts in technology, problem-solving, innovation and trouble-shooting. Very few are equipped with the more subtle and nuanced skills required to lead, inspire and engage a team. Even fewer are able to confidently create a culture where discussion about wellness, mental health and belonging are tabled. The result being that burnout is a common problem among IT professionals in South Africa.

In the "The State of Burnout in Tech” research report by Yerbo, 61% of IT professionals in South Africa reported feeling burned out at work. The report surveyed 30 000 IT professionals across 33 countries, and found South Africa had the third highest rate of burnout among IT professionals, behind only India and China.

Pretending that everything is OK is not going to change the reality.

The result of this is lower productivity, increased errors, higher absenteeism and increased attrition. All of which have a bottom-line impact, and in a skills-short market, retaining talent must be one of the C-suite’s top priorities.

While EAPs focus attention on equipping the individual with stress management and self-leadership skills, which I applaud, very little is out there to equip managers with the practical skills and tools to confidently discuss wellbeing concerns and proactively create a work-environment that fosters high engagement, well-being and belonging.

Managers need to lead a culture of wellbeing, but how? Here is a four-point summary of what the role of managers is in this regard and some tips to get started:

As a manager, your first responsibility is to put on your own oxygen mask. Don’t exhaust yourself by trying to be all things to all people. Leading yourself well is your responsibility. This means taking care of your own personal wellbeing first.

Know what resources you have access to within and without your organisation. Prepare an “in case of emergency” resource for yourself. This includes contact numbers for the EAP, counselling resources, learn what they can do and what is not in their scope. Have a few extra resources of your own, such as a depression and anxiety support group, or grief support group in your area.

Get clear about your personal and professional boundaries. It might be tempting to rescue people, or go well beyond your scope as a manager during times of crisis. When you know one of your team members is struggling (financially, physically, mentally), you might find yourself getting your “white horse saddled” so you can ride in and save the day. Don’t! A helpful guiding question is: Would you be able to do this for everyone in your team if they needed it?

Watch for work impact. The people in your team will no doubt have personal stuff that needs to be managed. This could be grief, trauma, financial concerns, depression, family issues… the list is endless and life happens to all of us. Extending empathy and behaving with compassion is a must. However, don’t let this be the only way you engage your team member.

When team members have had reasonable time to manage/recover from/work through, there is an expectation of performance. And when their performance consistently does not meet the clear requirements of their role, action needs to be taken.

Genevieve Koolen, HR director for SAP Africa, has the following saying: When their business affects the business, it becomes my business.

This is a great guiding principle. When performance is impacted, managers need to give specific feedback, working through what was observed, what the impact is and what is expected going forward.

Prior to that, proactively look at workload rebalancing, clearly prioritising the urgent over the important for each team member, and doing frequent and personal 1:1 check-ins to become aware of the storm clouds brewing well before the rain starts to fall.

While not easy, engaging in constructive, future-focused, feedback conversations are essential and the core of your role as a manager. Pretending that everything is OK is not going to change the reality. Your role is challenging; it requires you to do the adulting.

Managers need to create work-conditions that foster wellbeing, and don’t unnecessarily add stress to already stressed-by-life employees. You don’t want to be the one creating the problem. Your organisation does not have as its mission statement: make lives unbearably stressful for our employees.

If you are not proactively getting ahead of the workplace culture in your team, you might well be adding to the problem. And life is tough enough already!