Being a people manager can feel overwhelming. The job is never done, and the weight of responsibility for your colleagues’ success can feel heavy. Manager burnout is common and rising.
To help you carry that weight, we’re going to think about ways to spread the load, and manage it effectively when it gets heavier.
As we mentioned in What it Means to Be a Manager, your time will fly.
You’ll never feel like you have enough of it, so using it well is key to staying on top of the role. It will also give you more of a sense of control and predictability over your working life, which is essential for managing stress.
‘Psychologists who study stress have identified three primary factors that make us feel awful: a lack of control, unpredictability, and the perception that things are getting worse. In other words: uncertainty.’ Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy
Here’s some tips to help:
As we’ve mentioned before, you were probably made a manager because you were really good at something else. You might even have been described at some point your life as a ‘high-achiever’. Most of the problems you’ve come across at work, you’ve managed to solve through some combination of your abilities, grit, and powering through - and it seems to be working.
Whilst these are admirable and powerful traits, sometimes as a people manager, they get us into trouble.
Because being a manager sometimes presents you with a set of challenges which no combination of capability, grit, and work will solve.
These are often structural issues which are insurmountable with just individual effort. And those who try often burnout trying to run through these brick walls.
One of the most common is just having too many team members. If you have any other responsibilities (and many managers do), most managers will struggle to properly lead a team of more than 6 people. If you try and line manage 10 people to a high standard whilst also doing IC work, you’ll likely either do some of it badly or burnout. That’s not on you - it’s just a borderline impossible job. The solution is not harder work, it’s to address the structural issue and reduce your workload/team members.
Another common one is managing poor hires who no matter how much feedback and development effort you put in, cannot deliver the performance you need and are compromising your team. Again, that’s not on you. An individual was hired for a role they weren’t suited for, and the structural solution is to let them go.
There’s endless further examples, from poor company strategy to workplace discrimination.
We’re not saying don’t try and solve these problems. But learn to recognise which problems you can solve through your own resourcefulness, and which you’ll need help with.
When times get tough, it’s helpful to have people you trust within your company who you can talk to about the challenges. They’ll have a different perspective than partners/friends/family outside the company who may not understand the full context of your work.
This could be your boss, a peer, or a mentor. Developing these relationships takes time, but if you don’t have one, try and make a start so they’re there when you need them (see Janet T. Pham’s article on finding a mentor in Further Resources if you’re looking for one.)
Your support network also includes your team. If you’re having a difficult time, those you manage will play a significant role in your experience. It can be hard to know how much you should open up to them though, particularly if you’re collectively experiencing a difficult situation and you’re the one who’s meant to be providing predictability, stability, and guidance.
Liz Fosslien has an approach called ‘selective vulnerability’ which you may find helpful:
‘“Managers have to be more intentional about the emotions they express at work and about when to be transparent. Every time they are vulnerable, their reports are watching and analyzing their words and actions for a deeper meaning. I’d encourage managers to practice ‘selective vulnerability,’ which is opening up to their teams while still prioritizing boundaries and stability. A simple formula is to pair a moment of vulnerability with a path forward. Something like, ‘I know this is a really hard time for all of us, I’m feeling it, too. My door is always open. Here are the steps I’m planning to take this month to ensure we’re balancing our well-being with making progress, and here’s what I need from you.’ You show you’re human but also that you’re still capable of confidently leading the team through a difficult period.”
It isn’t an original thought that taking your paid time off is good for your wellbeing. Obviously do it.
If reading this makes you worried about how some aspects of your team’s work would get done in your absence, you’ve got some work to do as a manager.
You should be able to get to a point where you can lift off for one to two weeks and it shouldn’t significantly impact your team’s ability to function.
You might think: ‘But doesn’t that demonstrate I’m not needed?’
Nope. Because the work you did doesn’t go away, you just need to temporarily delegate and redistribute it. Holidays are a great way to give promising team members more responsibility and opportunities.
The opposite is also true.
If you leave on holiday but don’t delegate, stay on e-mails, and keep checking-in, it sends a strong message to your team that you don’t trust them yet to take on some of your responsibilities.
Now that might be the case. You may feel you have skills gaps you need to rectify. But if that’s the case, you should explain to your team why you think they’re not ready for the additional responsibilities, and how you’re working to change that.
Take your time off and remember that how you do it is a great gauge of the progress you’re making as a manager, and the state of your team.
You can get so busy helping others achieve their goals that you forget to spend enough time thinking about your own career.
Just as your team will be motivated when their work aligns with their broader career aspirations, you also need be aware of whether your work is making you happy and fulfilled.
Working incredibly hard in a position which isn’t helping you progress in the direction you want is a road to misery.
If you feel unsure about the future direction of your career and how you can align your role with that, put yourself on the other side of the career conversations we mentioned in Part 4. Take some time to consider your aspirations, the life you want to lead, the work that makes you happy, the skills you want to build, and the people you want to spend time with.
Without this clarity, you’ll struggle to feel purpose in your work, and motivation will be hard to come by, particularly on the tough days.
You’ll also miss out on a ton of help. You can only ask others (your boss, mentors etc) for support in your career if you know what you want in the first place.
And finally, it will also make you a better manager - you’ll be able to give much better advice on thinking about careers if you’ve done the difficult yards of working out your own path.
It’s easy to feel underappreciated when you work very hard but don’t see the tangible results or get any feedback.
As mentioned in What it Means to be a Manager, lots of management work can fall into this category. You know all the work you’re doing organizing your team, understanding their needs, furthering their careers, and helping them develop is good but it’s hard to tell just how good.
The impact of this work is hard to measure, and often you won’t get any feedback as a manager… unless you ask for it.
Each quarter we recommend getting some feedback from your team on your performance as their manager. The insights you’ll get into areas to improve are just as valuable as the reassurance and encouragement you’ll get from hearing about the things you’re doing well.
It doesn’t have to be complicated. Even a simple start-stop-continue survey can help:
You can distribute this survey yourself or you could get your boss to do it for you.
We all have good days and bad days.
Sometimes it will be unavoidable but in general it pays off to try and do difficult, complicated work on your good days when you feel more capable and resilient, and relegate simpler tasks to your bad days.
But to do that, you need to learn to spot the signals of a good and a bad day.
This is a very individual assessment. Perhaps it’s due to the sleep you got, or the people you hung out with the evening before, or what you ate, or whether you exercised, or whether you had that annoying meeting.
Whatever it is, if you can learn to spot it, it will help you make the most of your good days and not make the bad days worse.
If this advice is all known, why are people managers still so burned out?
The shitty paradox at the heart of all this is that the only way for busy managers to make their roles healthy and fulfilling is to somehow find more time to do what we’ve just discussed.
Understandably, this can be difficult so many don’t do it and persist with working practices which are destined to make them unhappy.
So the final point to all this is to make the time to think about these things and take the actions to improve your lot.
Block out a few hours every month to review this list and see if there’s anything that needs to be done. Go on, put it in your calendar. Any meetings to be cancelled. Any people you wanted to meet with. Any responsibilities you wanted to delegate.
Do this, and you can dramatically increase your happiness and success as a manager. But the only one who can do it is you.
‘When you are persistently unhappy, say something. When you are stuck, ask for help. When you want a raise, ask for it. When you want a promotion, find out what you need to do to get it. Your manager cannot force work–life balance on you. If you want to go home, figure out how to get your work done and go home.’ Camille Fournier, The Manager’s Path