Leaders Letter Newsletter

Leaders Letter 108 – The solution to your team members’ burnout might not be the webinar that HR are offering.

Dear Leaders, this week’s Leaders Letter comes from bestselling writer Bruce Daisley. As well as being the author of books like The Joy of Work, Bruce has a wealth of frontline leadership experience including setting up YouTube in the UK and spending 5 years as EMEA Vice President for Twitter.

How is your firm proposing to deal with burnout? 

We seem to be in a blizzard of talk about resilience as a response to the moment we find ourselves in. Last year there was a collective realisation that the Zoomageddon of modern work was leading to a burnout pandemic. We felt frazzled by the relentless inflow of incoming messages and the sense that at any moment somewhere out there was a meeting we were meant to be dialled-in to. 

When I worked at Twitter we had a huge burnout epidemic. After a wave of job cuts we found that the team who remained seemed exhausted, dead eyed and battle weary. We knew something had to give. We set about slashing the amount of time that the team spent in meetings. 

In the wider world of work there’s a storied history of the leaders of bad cultures seeking to reframe burned out workers as a product of individual weakness rather than an expected outcome. When it comes to understanding this the research of social scientist Alex Haslam is incredibly instructive. Haslam explained to me that there’s a history of trying to attribute the consequence of toxic working cultures as down to employee shortcomings. 

He reminded me of a case in 2003 when the UK’s Health and Safety Executive issued a ‘Stress Improvement Notice’ to West Dorset General Hospitals NHS Trust to resolve burnout issues they were experiencing. The notice was an official caution that the Trust was expected to resolve the toxic workplace it had created. Haslam explained to me that faced with blame for an overwhelming culture, rather than setting about the Herculean task of instituting root and branch reforms the Trust chose instead to reframe the issue, ‘One way they did that was rhetorically by saying “OK, we’ve had enough of talking about this bad stuff. So let’s start looking on the positive side and talking about resilience’. And so the reframe of burnout began. Stress wasn’t the understandable output of an unsustainably toxic working environment, they suggested, it was what happened when workers weren’t hardy enough.

Resilience by a rub of Aladdin’s lamp 

The end result of cases like this is that we end up with a solution for burnout beckoned to us like Aladdin’s genie. “We need to find a way for individuals to stop being so beaten down by circumstance,” is the ask. It was this rubbing of the lamp that first led to the superstar psychologist to be summoned to create interventions, first for school children and then for adults. And so it is that if your firm offers resilience training it will be the work of Seligman that it is almost certainly based on. 

Not to get lost in the weeds of an investigation that I’ve just spent two years completing but the long and short of it is that this training simply doesn’t work. This is the double whammy of the moment that resilience is having. Firstly the very idea that our colleagues can’t handle unsustainable working conditions is due to their lack of resilience is victim-blaming. Secondly, the training that they are offered has been shown in independent analysis not to work anyway. We’re gaslighting our colleagues and then offering them a sugar pill.

The funny thing about resilience is that aside from the Happy Meal version of the concept that was created to meet the corporate demand for it, delivered by jobbing well-being organisations in Zoom webinars, it is pretty clear that resilience, that human capacity to reenergise and bounce back from setbacks, clearly does exist. We see it in the legendary braveness of the Ukrainian people, we see it in the survivors of Bangladeshi floods, we see it in the toil of frontline medical staff through the pandemic. 

The vital lesson for every leader is that far from being some magical feat of individual strength conjured up by top performers in moments of adversity, resilience is a collective attribute. Individuals aren’t resilient, groups of people are. As one person declared in a research interview, “you can’t be resilient on your own, can you?” No doubt any of us might feel fearful if called up to the frontline, but the sense that “we’re in this together” emboldens and fortifies us way beyond what we believe we are capable of. 

If your team members are showing signs of frailty right now you might ask, how can I reduce the workload and increase the sense that we’re all in this together?

Bruce Daisley’s new book Fortitude is published in August.
He’s currently offering to do free private, virtual talks for teams who preorder 50 copies of the book.

Thanks for reading this week’s letter and I will see you again next week.

Danny Denhard

Here is some more content from Bruce to inspire you this week