On January 18, 2022, Salesforce and American Marketing Association (AMA) brought together a panel of three experts to tackle a problem stoking the flames of the Great Resignation: burnout. The panelists included:
- Heather Ilsley McCullough, Digital Platform Architect at Shift Paradigm
- Amelia Dunlop, Chief Experience Officer and US Customer Strategy & Applied Design Leader, Deloitte Digital
- Kian Gohar, Founder and CEO, Geolab
Molly Soat, VP of Professional Development at AMA, moderated the panel, introducing the panelists by noting that they bring together some unique perspectives on the causes of burnout specifically affecting marketers. She began by asking them: What does burnout really mean?
Gohar, who has been writing a book for the Harvard Business Review on this new era of business, jumped in to say that burnout is entirely individual. However, he and his colleagues define burnout as “a depletion of the resources that individuals and teams have, from personal support networks to financial resources.”
Dunlop elaborated, describing how burnout feels to individuals experiencing it.
“For me, it feels like my eyeballs hurt because I’ve been staring at a screen too long. My voice hurts because I’m talking at a screen instead of having a quiet conversation in a room,” she said.
She went on to note the difference between being tired in a normal way versus being exhausted from burnout. Whereas tiredness can be resolved with a good night’s sleep or a restful weekend, exhaustion can’t be as easily resolved and runs much deeper. “It’s a blinking light that something is wrong,” Dunlop said.
McCullough described burnout as being totally overwhelmed and its impacts are deeply personal. With more than 20 years of experience in the field, McCullough pointed out burnout’s particular pitfalls for marketing teams. “It kills the curiosity and creativity that you need to do your daily life and work,” she said.
In a revealing moment, everyone on the panel admitted they had experienced burnout over the past 18 months.
Soat redirected the panel to ask: What is the opposite of burnout? What should we be aiming for in teams?
Gohar defined the opposite of burnout as resilience and a refilling of the coffers. “It’s when you put back into those elements that really charge you up, excite you, and give you the energy to continue on to the next step,” he said.
Dunlop referenced the research for her book, “Elevating the Human Experience.”. Her work involved a 6,000-person quantitative study on what it means to feel loved and worthy in the workplace. More than 90% of the group agreed that it matters to feel worthy at work and about half also said that they struggle to feel worthy.
“I call this the worthiness gap,” she said. “I think burnout is the symptom of not feeling loved and not feeling worthy in your work.”
McCullough defined the opposite of burnout more as feeling a level of appreciation. “Love feels like a very strong word in the context of work,” she said. “Appreciation is a word that comes a little more to mind to me.”
Dunlop agreed and said she and the research team deliberately chose the term ‘love’ to be provocative. “Using that word in the context of work makes me feel uncomfortable, too,” she said with alaugh. “We can use many different words: appreciation, care, respect. But what I wanted to capture was the Greek word for love meaning flourishing: eudaimonia.”
So, what can managers do for their teams to encourage that flourishing? Soat interjected.
From a practical perspective, McCullough said that encouraging PTO, reducing meetings, and taking work off people’s plates is a good start. But listening to and empowering your team to do what they really want with their careers will promote longer lasting resilience. She pointed out that managers need to carve out specific times to have intentional conversations surrounding career aspirations and that sometimes employees will need help to discover what motivates them.
“Managers need to be much more intentional,” Dunlop agreed. “I’m a big proponent of the two-minute phone call just to express gratitude. When you actually call someone, it’s a tiny human connection.”
She also called attention to the fact that leaders and managers are burned out too. “I think about helping employees with burnout in terms of ‘what do we need to do for ourselves?’” Dunlop said. “Understanding that, you’ll realize there are things you can do to reach out and be a better ally to them.”
Gohar noted that his research agrees with McCullough’s idea that intentionality is incredibly important. For their book, he and his colleagues interviewed 2,000 executive teams to understand what made them thrive.
“Doing these agile sprints back-to-back over the last two years has been exhausting for everyone,” he said. “You need to recontract with your team to make sure they’re all crossing the finish line together. In a crisis, it’s easy to divide tasks and bunker down. In normal times it takes more intentionality to co-elevate to make sure everyone has the resources they need to cross the finish line together.”
Like Dunlop, he took time to point out that checking in regarding burnout is not a purely top-down exercise. “It’s not just a bottom-up exercise either,” he said. “Supporting your peers when they are struggling by bringing a personal touch to communication or even a professional check-in helps.”
Dunlop asked Gohar for some practical examples of team support from his research, and Gohar gave an example of a very simple question that allows a personal check-in: What’s happening in your life that’s sweet and sour?
“It’s an easy way to start off a meeting and envision what’s happening in people’s lives,” he said. “We’re seeing into people’s homes on Zoom, but how much are we really seeing into their lives?”
To ensure that team members are comfortable sharing, Gohar said that leaders must begin the exercise by answering the question themselves. He further noted that leaders should try to create a more psychologically safe space by limiting the number of participants in the meeting.
Gohar also circled back to Dunlop’s suggestion of a two-minute call, citing a specific research example that validated it’s efficacy. When employees at a small, 30-person organization were falling behind on their project schedules during the transition to remote work, his research team found that it was because they weren’t used to constant IMs, texts and video calls.
“Picking up the phone breaks up the rhythm of your calendar, but for this organization it was a powerful way to unblock things and helped people achieve their deadlines,” Gohar said. “You should have the right to call your teammates during the day. When you were in the office, it was pretty normal to just pop your head in.”
Dunlop said that having all the communications channels open at once can also lead to miscommunication and stress. To combat the times when tone might have come off poorly, she and her colleagues have been practicing what they call the do-over call.
“It’s for when a meeting or email didn’t come off well, but you don’t want to rehash it. So, we just say we need to go that again and show up with the better version of ourselves,” she said. Dunlop believes that phone calls allow more space for humanity and feel much more like the organic office drop-by than most technological tools.
McCullough said that she and her teams have been breaking off into small groups for discussions and using a tool called Discord. The app allows users to see when others are free to talk and creates a communal space without creating a long group chat chain.
“We’re all doing work, but we might not be working on the same thing,” McCullough said. “But everyone is there, similar to when you work in a shared office. You might not be talking but you’re listening.”
Circling back to Gohar’s comment about combating burnout laterally, Soat asked: How can teams help their peers and work colleagues with their feelings of burnout?
“It all goes back to that one-on-one conversation and empathizing with them,” McCullough said. “Help them be more self-aware. Help them understand what they’re not able to accomplish that they want to in their role. Help them work through it — write down observations and reflect it back to them.”
Dunlop said that Soat’s question reflects her research on allyship which she breaks down into four categories:
- Friends: Who like you for you but aren’t invested in promoting your career success
- Mentors: Who provide advice and can coach you through a challenge
- Sponsors: Who are like mentors, but who take it a step further by using their own positional power to advocate for you when you aren’t in the room
- Benefactors: Who are all of the above, but typically appear as more of a witness to your career and your evolution over time
“Breaking allyship and what we owe each other at work into those categories helps me understand what I’m doing for people and whether I am filling those roles if they know how I feel about them,” Dunlop said. “We need these people around us, and one of the causes of burnout is not having them.”
Dunlop also pointed out that one of the major problems is that colleagues don’t know when someone else is struggling, which is why she employs what she calls ‘the check-in, check-in.’ Rather than the check-in being about a project status or deadline, the ‘check-in, check-in’ is about how you are doing personally.
Gohar emphasized that this kind of diagnostic to measure the team battery is vital. He alluded to customer satisfaction buttons at big box stores as an example of the kind of simple solution that could work and suggested something similar as an email survey.
Soat asked: What cultural tools like this do you use in your organizations to build up company culture?
At Shift Paradigm, McCullough’s teams use 15Five to diagnose team members’ performance and how people are doing each week. They also have scheduled watercooler meetings and meet as a company every Friday on a video call around noon. “Everybody’s distributed across the country, and that meeting allows you to see everyone’s faces or icons and know they’re there,” McCullough said. “It creates a sense of community that lets us feel connected.”
Gohar agreed, saying one of the real perks of the shift to hybrid and remote work is that you can maximize inclusion. “You’re not just inviting the people on your team to solve a problem,” he said. “You can increase the number of people who are outside your team and allow them to collaborate and provide solutions to problems you might not have thought about.”
While Dunlop agreed that inclusion and collaboration can create a powerful culture, she also warned against too much inclusion in the hybrid or remote models. “We could all fill our days and attend every meeting, and that creates an ‘always on’ culture,” she said. “That leads to burnout, and to combat it, managers need to ask people questions and provide them with opportunities to create boundaries like ‘Are you not a morning person?’ or ‘Do you need Zoom-free days or video-optional calls?’”
Gohar and Dunlop both began drawing a boundary of dinner as the point at which work stops. Dunlop’s family even goes so far as to turn off the WIFI at 7 p.m. to ensure that the family could eat a meal together. McCullough blocks her calendar from scheduling meetings after 5 pm and likewise devotes that time to her family. Dunlop also said she’s set a rule that she doesn’t do video for one-on-one calls unless it’s with someone she doesn’t know.
“My team now knows that if it’s a one-on-one conversation, we’re going to be walking,” she said. “They put their sneakers on and head out too. It’s been a good habit for my team and for me.”
Work boundaries alone aren’t sufficient to break the burnout cycle, however, and Gohar emphasized that people need to devote at least 15 minutes a day to individual time. “Take the dog for a walk. Practice meditation or yoga,” he said. “But put your phone on silent and turn the WIFI off. Scheduling that every day is really critical.”
Dunlop agreed, sharing advice that a mentor shared with her upon coming back from her third maternity leave.
“There’s a point at which work becomes so overwhelming that we think we want to do a 180 and chuck it all and go become a goat herder in northern Vermont. But he encouraged me that whenever you get to that point, shift that 180 change to a 10-degree change,” she said. In practice, a 10% change looks like an hour a day to yourself or shortening an hourlong meeting by 6 minutes or taking 10% of the meetings off your calendar.
“More importantly, pay attention to your battery and make sure it’s not getting all the way to red,” Dunlop said. “Take that time and don’t feel apologetic about it. Don’t give it to a family member or a colleague. Reclaim that space.”
McCullough said that simply turning off notifications from some of your tools can make a big difference. “I find Slack particularly invasive,” she said. “I want to participate, but I want to do so in the context of my structured day. And no one needs to know that there are 29 LinkedIn notifications waiting to be read. If the red dot creates stress, get rid of it. It’s not necessary.”
Dunlop agreed, saying the abundance of ways to stay connected can be a large source of stress. “When I’m in a meeting, I’m not just running that meeting,” she said. “I’m dealing with my phone, Teams, Skype and emails popping up as well as the chat in the Zoom meeting. I’m trying to process five channels of communication at the same time, so by the end of the day I have no words. Literally no words.”
Soat wrapped up the panel by asking: What general last words of wisdom do you have on burnout, particularly in the context of making sure that burnout is not the driving force of resignation?
McCullough referenced some quotes from people she follows on Twitter who she believes are part of a greater movement to help others figure out how to live their lives the best way possible. Two quotes she shared that particularly resonated with the group were:
- “True self care is not salt baths and chocolate cake; it is making the choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly need to escape from.” Brianna Wiest
- We’re always investing our time and our lives in something. Always we invest.
For her, what it boils down to is asking yourself what success looks like, articulating that, and working towards it.
“I’m not great at this,” McCullough laughed. “I’m just doing life, and it’s an adventure. But intentionality and being present is key for knowing what you want. In a workplace environment you don’t think you need to talk about those things, but you do if you want to reduce attrition.”
Gohar referenced the quote about time as an investment as a great way for people to begin having the conversations that can combat burnout. “Time is the one thing we have that diminishes,” he said. “We all have it, and it all goes away. Figuring out how to prioritize that time is making an investment for you in your life.”
He also said that if he could give people one takeaway it’d be about resilience. “Resilience is a team sport,” Gohar said. “Make sure that everyone on your team has the energy they need. Get the tools and diagnostics to really learn where your team is at. If your manager isn’t aware of the concept that resilience is a team sport yet, it’s your responsibility to make them aware.”
Dunlop pointed out that much of the conversation around burnout centers on inclusion, purpose and meaning.
“But my thoughts are that it’s about the fundamental human need to feel worthy and loved,” she said. “We spend more time now than ever at work, so we do expect more now from our work colleagues. Take responsibility for yourself in feeling loved and worthy. Set your boundaries, resource yourself with the allies you need, and then you check in with your workplace and see how much power you have to make the changes for yourself and others.”
Watch the full video webcast for free on the AMA’s website.