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Managers and burnout – put your own oxygen mask on first!

One of the new trends observed in the Ombud’s Office in 2022 was supervisors feeling a lack of support. As the CERN Ombud Annual Report for 2022 highlights:

“The few managers who come to discuss challenging managerial situations with the Ombud complain of lack of support. They feel that they are left alone to deal with conflicts, complaints, or mental health issues such as depression.”

One recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) article provides food for thought on this emerging trend and quotes, from Microsoft’s most recent Work Trend Index report, that “more than 53% of managers report feeling burnout at work”. In connection with the trend that I have observed at CERN, I propose to share with you interesting insights from this article.

Christina Maslach, a pioneer in burnout research, says burnout in the workplace is a result of continually experiencing stress, resulting in exhaustion, cynicism and a perceived lack of personal accomplishment – the three dimensions of burnout.

The reasons outlined for these burnout symptoms are an unsustainable workload, a perceived lack of control, insufficient reward for efforts, a lack of fairness, mismatched values and skills, and lack of a supportive community.

While all employees may potentially be stretched between high workload and limited resources, managers have the added responsibility of ensuring that their team members get what they need to be able to give their best, on top of doing their own work. You need to be in good shape to manage a team, and managers’ unhappiness can have an impact on the team.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, it appears that front-line managers are more likely to experience exhaustion and a lack of professional efficacy than leaders higher up in the hierarchy.

While managers have a key role to play in mitigating burnout risks in their teams, their own levels of resistance to burnout are just as important. The HBR article provides a few effective tools to help managers protect themselves from burnout:

Managers, like any worker, must connect their work with what matters and makes sense to them. An open discussion with their managers on what gives them energy and meaning at work is important.

Managers need opportunities for learning and development, which are key to providing bursts of energy. The offer from HR-L&D for managers is large and varied. Managers’ leaders should seek and integrate multiple feedback sources to get a complete picture of how they are doing and help target where they need to grow, such as through coaching.

Flexible work is as important for managers as for their team members. Being able to work in the way that is best for them, as part of a collective design of the team’s work schedule, can help reduce feelings of exhaustion.

Psychological safety, which is widely recognized as a prerequisite for well-performing teams, also applies to managers. Managers need to feel comfortable speaking up about their ideas, questions, concerns and mistakes. As a manager, it is important to set an example of owning up to your own mistakes, showing your vulnerability, inviting input from your team and responding constructively to the feedback that you receive.

Finally, managers need to “put their own oxygen masks on first” and be a role model for caring for themselves. Recharging batteries, as well as setting boundaries and respecting others’ boundaries, help protect managers from burnout.

Setting direction and leveraging the work of team members, while caring for the team and managing escalating demands with potentially fewer resources, is no easy task. The risk of burnout exists for managers, too, and they need support from their hierarchy, from the Organization’s processes and from their team members. Managers are welcome in the Ombud’s Office!

Laure Esteveny

I would like to hear your reactions and suggestions – join the CERN Ombud Mattermost team at https://mattermost.web.cern.ch/cern-ombud/.