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Team leader wellbeing and leading teams without causing burnout

How can team leaders prevent their own burnout and manage their teams without causing burnout to them?

The role of the team leader is to be the glue between team members and upper management. That is to say, team leaders are constantly being stretched in both directions and presented with needs that should be addressed. This inevitably generates psychosocial stress, making it pertinent to think of ways of limiting it. While doing so, team leaders should also examine their leadership style from the perspective of the wellbeing of the working community. Studies show that streamlining employees’ work tasks also contributes to employees’ psychosocial wellbeing. In other words, the less unnecessary friction there is between work and employee, the better the employee’s psychosocial wellbeing. As such, there are many measures that can be implemented in teams to reduce burnout problems.

What is burnout syndrome?

Burnout syndrome is a condition resulting from work, the main symptom categories of which are:

  1. fatigue that lasts for at least 2 weeks and does not get better just by resting

  2. work losing its sense of meaning and cynicism towards work

  3. cognitive changes; concentration and memory difficulties and impaired professional self-esteem.

Burnout may be visible on the outside, although people suffering from it can also be very good at concealing their condition for a long time. Burnout is often associated with sleeping problems. As a team leader, you can therefore ask employees whether there are any work issues that affect their sleep or how they would rate their level of coping at work. When it comes to monitoring the occupational wellbeing of team members, it is crucial for the team leader to be familiar enough with their team that they can recognize changes in the employees’ behavior and ask about the situation as early as possible.

A person suffering from burnout often takes longer to do the same work than before and may become more forgetful. It is often difficult for them to read a book in a concentrated manner, let alone achieve a sense of flow. Burnout can also reduce work motivation. As a result of focusing on negative thoughts, the person often starts to doubt their own skills and the meaningfulness of their work, which may also lead them to consider quitting their job. The person may start viewing their work as unnecessary, irrational or even impossible. Often the person also has difficulties believing that things will work out. The increased cynicism resulting from burnout may manifest e.g., during client meetings or within the working community as negative interaction or gloominess.

Burnout can also lead to other symptoms or illnesses if left untreated. It can even cause harmful changes in the brain. The treatment for burnout often involves examining the person’s ways of thinking with the aim of making them more flexible, as burnout generally causes one’s thoughts to skew in a more negative direction.

A team leader’s wellbeing lays the foundation for their team’s wellbeing

When it comes to managing your own coping, it is important to occasionally limit your availability, focus on doing only one thing at a time, create personal practices that protect your concentration and limit the time spent in unnecessary meetings. Reading this list, it is easy to note that following these instructions in everyday management work is extremely challenging. In recognition of this, the focus should be on prioritizing the objectives that are most relevant to your work.

When planning work, it is important to respect your typical level of energy. For example, early risers are more productive in the morning, and some work tasks are better accomplished at certain levels of energy. Tasks requiring concentration, such as writing an article, may actually be challenging at extremely high energy levels, during which you can be easily distracted by various stimuli. Conversely, a high level of energy can be helpful for things like trade fairs that require socializing with large numbers of people while appearing energetic and enthusiastic. More often than not, working in an environment with few stimuli makes independent work easier. On the other hand, a space designed for interaction should be primarily used for interaction.

When the aim is to avoid unnecessary interruptions to ensure concentration, it is advisable to process emails separately at a reserved time period in the morning and afternoon. In many jobs, this kind of approach is perfectly viable, even if it does not initially seem like it. When it becomes routine, this approach increases opportunities for concentration, because you can focus on other things during the times between the reserved time periods while avoiding constant interruptions. This kind of approach also makes sense in terms of human performance, as it minimizes the time that you would otherwise spend shifting your focus between tasks, which can often cause stress. It is also a good idea to occasionally carry out projects where you are involved in all the stages of the work process – doing so gives you experiences of things being completed and allows you to experience whole processes.

The best way to build efficient personal operating methods is to conduct small tests on new working methods and then assess how well they are working after a few weeks. From the perspective of work performance, it should also be noted that a team leader who suffers from harmful psychosocial stress is often dumber when making decisions. They are less likely to be able to listen to team members, which reduces management quality and increases negative behavior in social situations. It is therefore particularly important for team leaders to focus some attention on their own coping and collect feedback on their own behavior.

Leadership style affects psychosocial stress within teams

In her doctoral thesis, Peltokangas (2016) investigates the relationship between a leader’s personality, work performance and burnout. Regarding burnout, she notes that narcissistic team leaders do not seem to experience coping problems in their work. By contrast, team leaders who are very creative and innovative are seemingly more prone to experiencing symptoms of burnout. Even so, it may not be optimal to become a narcissist, unless you are one already, because narcissistic leadership is rarely considered optimal from the viewpoint of the wellbeing of team members.

Leadership style has a major impact on the psychosocial stress experienced by team members. The ideal leadership style is receptive, honest, present, genuine, fair and consistent. Of these qualities, both genuineness and honesty contribute to trust and consistency. Trust and consistency, in turn, make it possible for team members to predict their team leader’s behavior, reducing surprises and uncertainty. A receptive and empathetic team leader also reduces the likelihood of team members developing an unhealthy need to please their team leader or becoming afraid of them and e.g., coming to work while sick when it would be more rational to take the opportunity to alleviate psychosocial stress.

It is also important for team leaders to promote psychological safety, i.e., a culture where people feel comfortable reporting their mistakes. From the point of view of psychological safety, it is essential for the team leader not to offend anyone, at least deliberately, by e.g., humiliating a team member in front of others. If someone is inadvertently offended, it is essential to apologize without delay. A team leader striving for psychological safety also serves as an example for their team by admitting to their own mistakes and encouraging team members to raise any problems related to plans that have been drawn up so that solutions can be explored in advance.

Another factor that affects the coping of employees is the clarity of work processes and objectives. When work tasks are clear, a leadership style that promotes autonomy and self-direction can support coping, but when they are not, this type of leadership style can increase psychosocial stress.

In recent years, as remote work has increased, team leaders have had to also pay particular attention to strengthening team cohesion. Regarding cohesion and team spirit, it should be noted that the operating models, behavior, and feelings of team leaders propagate widely throughout the organization. As such, it is important to reflect on these themes to eliminate harmful aspects of one’s own behavior. If you are too tired to listen to your subordinates, then your subordinates will not listen either. Having to report the same issues via multiple systems is also a surefire way to frustrate team members.

Studies carried out in recent years have provided a great deal of evidence to support these earlier guidelines. Summanen (2019) examined the management teams of Finnish municipalities and found that factors contributing to burnout included lack of support from team leaders, leadership problems and poor personnel management. In Gluschkoff’s (2017) study, one finding was that a high degree of fairness in leadership was considered a resource in the working environment and even mitigated the harmful effects of experienced violence.

Focusing on the right things and working more rationally improves wellbeing at work

One way to improve wellbeing at work and reduce burnout is to examine so-called illegitimate tasks. These are things that employees cannot be expected to do as part of their work roles (Semmer, Tschan, Meier, Facchin & Jacobshagen, 2010). In other words, they are tasks that the employee does not consider meaningful in terms of their duties. Illegitimate tasks are not part of core work tasks and cause unnecessary stress (Autio & Määttä, 2019).

Autio and Määttä (2019) present a respectful amount of data on illegitimate tasks and their impact on psychosocial wellbeing in their master’s thesis. Illegitimate tasks include both unreasonable tasks and unnecessary tasks (Semmer et al., 2010). For particularly experienced and capable employees, unreasonable tasks can also include tasks that are too simple. Illegitimate tasks can also be considered to cover seemingly unnecessary rules, such as having to keep your desk completely clean even when it is not visible to customers. Unnecessary tasks, on the other hand, can be defined as tasks that do not add value or could be done more efficiently if one were to stop and think about them for a moment. They have been found to weaken employee health (Kottwitz et al., 2013) and increase sickness absences (Thun, Halsteinli & Lovseth, 2018). Illegitimate tasks also have negative impacts on employee motivation, as they have been found to reduce the willingness of volunteers to continue volunteer work (Schie, Güntert & Wehner, 2014). Furthermore, studies show that illegitimate tasks cause fatigue (Meier & Semmer, 2018; Semmer et al., 2015) and cynicism (Semmer et al., 2015), which are symptoms of burnout.

In other words, working more rationally in teams can help avoid unnecessary burnout!

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Autio & Määttä (2019). Suojaako työn tuunaus työn vaatimusten haitallisilta hyvinvointiseurauksilta? (‘Does ‘work tuning’ provide protection against the negative health impacts of work requirements?’)

Master’s thesis, Tampere University.

Gluschkoff (2017) Psychosocial work characteristics, recovery, and health-related outcomes in teaching.

Kottwitz, M., Meier, L., Jacobshagen, N., Kälin, W., Elfering, A., Hennig, J. & Semmer, N. (2013). Illegitimate tasks associated with higher cortisol levels among male employees when subjective health is relatively low: An intra-individual analysis. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 39, 310–318. doi:10.5271/sjweh.3334

Meier, L. L., & Semmer, N. K. (2018). Illegitimate tasks as assessed by incumbents and supervisors:

Converging only modestly but predicting strain as assessed by incumbents, supervisors, and partners.

European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 27, 764–776.

Peltokangas, Hanna (2016). Leadership, Personality and Performance. Acta Wasiensia 351.

Schie, S., Güntert, S. & Wehner, T. (2014). How dare to demand this from volunteers! The impact of illegitimate tasks. Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 25, 851–868. doi:10.1007/s11266-013-9375-4

Semmer, N., Tschan, F., Meier, L., Facchin, S. & Jacobshagen, N. (2010). Illegitimate tasks and counterproductive work behavior. Applied Psychology an International Review, 59, 70–96. doi:10.1111/j.1464-0597.2009.00416.x

Semmer, N., Jacobshagen, N., Meier, L., Elfering, A., Beehr, T., Kälin, W. & Tschan, F. (2015). Illegitimate tasks as a source of work stress. Work & Stress, 29, 32–56. doi:10.1080/02678373.2014.1003996

Summanen (2019). Burnout narratives of the members of municipal management teams. Denying,

persevering, recovering or defending? University of Jyväskylä

( vaitos_2019_08_22.pdf?sequence=9&isAllowed=y)

Thun, S., Halsteinli, V. & Lovseth, L. (2018). A study of unreasonable illegitimate tasks, administrative tasks, and sickness presenteeism amongst Norwegian physicians: An everyday struggle? Bmc Health Services Research, 18, 1–9. doi:10.1186/s12913-018-3229-0

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