One of the issues with teams being in what I call, the Anxiety Zone, is while they can be great at getting things done to a high standard, there can be a big cost. And that is stress and anxiety that leads to burnout.
It's a big problem. A Deloitte survey of 1,000 professionals found that 91 percent of respondents say having an unmanageable amount of stress or frustration negatively impacts the quality of their work.
As you can see in the Achievement Zone Model below (from the book, Trusted to Thrive), Anxiety Zone teams are high in accountability and low in psychological safety.
Typically, Anxiety Zone teams are where the focus is on performance and not people. This can be due to a leader who pushes people to work long hours to get things done, is often critical or micromanages. It can also be due to difficult circumstances to complete work - resources are stretched and the team has to do the bulk of work in limited time.
The key to moving teams from the Anxiety Zone into the Achievement Zone is a leader who is committed to developing a more sustainable people-focused approach to getting results.
The reality is great teamwork can actually be amazing for our wellbeing, but really detrimental to our mental health when it's toxic. Anxiety Zone teams are interesting in that the leader can often avoid their team falling into a heap and use the challenging times to move more solidly into the Achievement Zone.
This requires leaders understanding that teamwork creates stress. Team members can often struggle with working with other people, get stuck when they don't know what to do or worry about letting other people down. If you have team members who are more inclined to be anxious or perfectionists, they will be more likely to operate in the Anxiety Zone.
First and foremost, leading with compassion and demonstrating that you care about employees is critical. One of the biggest drivers of burnout is people not feeling supported by leadership. Let's go through seven steps to show your team members that you care about them.
7 steps to reduce burnout at work
1. Provide the right skills and resources
In Achievement Zone teams, employees were given time away from work to attend training and improve their skills in team working, communication, leadership, and problem-solving methods.
On the other hand, the data highlighted that poor performing teams revealed a different story. When employees were not given enough opportunities to develop their skills through training, they felt like they were not being treated fairly. The consequence was that it created a barrier between managers and employees. This showed up as constant disputes and feeling more stressed at work.
2. Foster autonomy
People thrive in their jobs when they have autonomy and the power to control their work environment. It also sends the message that leaders trust employees to do the right thing, which is one of the most important building blocks of trust. According to research, if we lack autonomy, we feel devalued and suffer more depressive moods.
Leaders can make tasks more enjoyable by giving people control in how they do it, where they do it, when they do it and choose the pace.
For example, empowering employees to have nonlinear workdays where they choose to work the hours that best suit their most productive work time rather than the traditional 9 to 5.
According to the 2022 Brain Health Report, by Muse, a meditation tool provider, people with the highest self-reported brain health scores (which include memory, focus, sleep, mood, productivity, and creativity) are those who have tweaked their lifestyle such as adopting a nonlinear workday.
Setting a team up for success requires establishing clear goals that empower everyone to know how their individual work ladders up to the bigger picture. Autonomy helps employees feel like there is room for creativity within their role, driving satisfaction across the team.
3. Allow Input Into decision-making
Improving autonomy also includes allowing people to have input into decisions about their work responsibilities.
For many team members, it's very rewarding to have the opportunity to shape the roadmap and feel like they can put their stamp on it.
In a research study I undertook for a large organisation, one very happy team member said to me "I get to make recommendations, even if I don’t get to make the decision. They are taken into account. Not only that, if something has happened five times, I know what to do and I can make the judgement call. I know there are some teams where that’s not the case".
In the teams where employees had no authority to make judgement calls, their disengagement and dissatisfaction was palpable, including their stress levels. They spent most of the time second-guessing themselves and worried about displeasing their boss.
4. Create end-to-end responsibility In teams
During the same study I did within a large organisation, it was observed that people tended to be happier in their jobs when they worked on tasks across projects with similar deadlines.
As one of the team leaders said about end-to-end project teams, "It breaks down barriers between teams.It's a huge benefit to staff, seeing their work brought to life. It’s never boring and it's more positive. People get to do a range of stuff”.
Where possible, restructure work so that people are working together on projects that start and finish together. E.g.: teams work together on three-week 'sprints' to deliver projects.
5. Communicate clear expectations
When people are uncertain as to what is expected of them, they pull back and avoid bringing their full selves to the job at hand.
Communication is all about reducing anxiety.
Communicating clear expectations about the work to be done requires spending time planning and getting yourself clear.
You want to lock yourself away and write down what good looks like. This is determined by timing, budget and quality.
Specifying when 'good is good enough' is also an important process. Perfectionists will tie themselves into knots doing more than they need to and stressing themselves, and everyone else, around them. Given that a maximum of 5% of daily work only needs to be perfect, make it clear for the remaining 95% of day-to-day activities that ‘good’ is good enough.
This might be if you want someone to prepare a presentation that they have three hours to complete the work, not three days. Let them know only bullet points are required with questions to open up a team discussion.
On the other hand, if you find your team members are more likely to be pretty poor when it comes to delivering on timing, quality or budget, then make the consequences clear. You can do this in two ways - how you will reward work done well (eg: new skills learned, happy clients) and what happens when it's done poorly (eg: impact to customer, you or them).
Furthermore, clarify which tasks have higher priorities and discuss these, so that if a conflicting demand pops up - they have a better understanding of what is expected of them. This avoids the tendency for work pressures to overwhelm people.
6. Provide meaningful performance feedback
Imagine you had to walk 20 kilometres (12.5 miles) in one day. Which of the following would you find more motivating?
A. How far you are expected to go and being kept informed of progress along the way.
B. ‘This is the long march you hear about doing,’ with no information about the total distance or how far you have travelled.
C. To march 15 kilometres, then when you reach the 14-kilometre mark you are told you still have six kilometres left to go.
D. To march 25 kilometres, then when you reach 14 kilometres you are told you only have six more left to march.
A 1982 study by D Eden and A Shani measured the importance of feedback through researching US soldiers during intensive training.
Four groups each received one of the instructions above. Group A, who knew exactly how they were progressing, had the best performance and least stress. Group C who thought they were marching only fifteen kilometres but were told they had a further six kilometres to go performed next best. Group D, who were given good news at the 14-kilometre mark, rated third best. While Group B, who received no information about how far they were going or their progress, performed worst.
We need regular feedback to inform us how we are tracking to motivate us to stay the course. Many of us need to feel that we are making progress and that our work is contributing to something important.
Measurement and feedback provide an important sense of momentum which is critical to increasing performance and motivation. They reinforce we are doing the right things or show us when we need to change our approach. When we don’t receive feedback, or receive it after an activity is performed, it negatively impacts our self-confidence and sense of achievement.
Many well-meaning leaders avoid giving feedback, either because they are uncomfortable raising negative information or they don’t realise the importance of providing progress updates.
To reduce stress in your team, after you have communicated your clear expectations of what good likes to the team, keep everyone updated on progress and how to improve.
7. Address poor performance or toxic behaviours
One of the issues that I commonly find in teams is when a poor performer gets away with low quality work or is able to be abusive to team mates.
Leaders who ignore these issues create an enormous amount of stress and are more likely to give license to the remainder of the team to perform at a lower level.
In weekly team meetings, encourage each team member to talk about what they're working on, their progress and what's keeping them stuck, in order to help everyone understand their contribution to the team.
Ensure employees understand that they have a role to play in ensuring the smooth functioning of their team. Work on connecting team members together, help them to understand each other's role to the team and reduce conflict. Make sure you quickly nip any negative behaviours before they become a really big problem in your team. This goes a long way to reducing stress and aligning the team to what's important.
Reducing burnout at work
ADPRI research found that workers who reported that they felt part of a team were not only 2.7 times as likely as others to be fully engaged, but also 3 times more likely to he highly resilient and twice as likely to report a strong sense of belonging to their organisation.
To fully unleash the healing power of a team, requires a strong leader who is not willing to compromise on people's wellbeing. This means demonstrating that you care about every single team member. It requires being focused on fostering a safe, accountable team environment. This is one in which people know what is expected of them, have the resources to do their job, feel able to express themselves in their work, are empowered to contribute decisions and feel part of a team that works as a strong collective, respecting each individual.
When teamwork is done properly, employees feel more satisfied in their job and work relationships. They have less emotional exhaustion, less absenteeism and better teamwork. The flow on effect is better customer and organisational outcomes.
And when you think about it, isn't that what work should be about?