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How to talk about burnout with your teams

Why don’t employees open up about burnout before it happens? Learn how to create a culture where it’s safe to talk about it. 

Behind the scenes

Last updated

18 Aug 2022
How to talk about burnout with your teams

You’ve probably heard the term ‘burnout’ before.

In fact, it’s become so widespread that the WHO officially classified burnout as an occupational phenomenon. They define burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress characterized by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, negative feelings or mental distance about your job, and reduced productivity or efficiency.

I went through a period of burnout late last year. I was suffering from constant fatigue and exhaustion, persistent stress-induced back pain; I was canceling plans with friends and crying at the drop of a hat on work calls, in taxis, and in the street even. Despite all of this, it wasn’t until friends, my therapist, and my team lead said anything that I even realized what was happening.

The thing is, at Hotjar, we make it a point to talk about mental health. We offer wellness benefits, make a point with our team that sick leave isn’t only for physical illness, encourage an atmosphere of sharing with our leads and each other, and have a mental health channel on Slack. Our CEO had written publicly about his own experience of burnout. And yet, with this level of openness and normalizing, I still didn’t recognize what I was going through. If that was tough for me, it’s likely even harder for the 60% of employees who say they have never spoken to anyone about their mental health status at work.

But without the help of my team, I couldn’t have taken the time off I needed to reset and recharge. That’s why it’s so important to normalize these conversations in the workplace. I want to share how we approach this at Hotjar and what I learned by going through my own experience with burnout.

Recognize that burnout is on the rise

A 2021 study showed that 52% of respondents experienced burnout in 2021, and 67% say it’s gotten worse as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s certainly been a hard few years.

Working remotely at Hotjar meant I was fortunate to have a point of stability in my life through the pandemic—I didn’t have to radically change how I worked day-to-day, and my job remained stable—but the world has changed in irrevocable ways on a global scale, and we can’t ignore it. 

Whether you have parents on your team with fluctuating access to childcare, co-workers who were stuck in apartments alone through lockdowns day after day, or teammates impacted by socio-political upheaval or military conflict amidst all of this, it’s been a lot. 

We can’t expect us all to simply grit our teeth and bear it.

And the more we talk about how these global events impact us on a day-to-day basis, no matter how small, the more we can start to normalize that we aren’t robots who live in a bubble unaffected by the world around us. We’re human beings existing in a globally connected world.

Burnout can happen to anyone

One of the reasons I didn’t realize I was burned out was because I didn’t think I deserved to be burned out. 

To me, it made perfect sense if our founder felt burned out. He built the entire company from scratch—of course he’s burned out. The same rang true with Fortune 500 CEOs or front-line workers risking their lives every day. What did I have to feel so stressed about? But the truth is, anyone can experience burnout.

It’s important to recognize that no matter what kind of role you’re working in, no matter where you are in the organization, you can become burned out. It has nothing to do with roles, responsibilities, success, your personality, your salary—it can happen to anyone.

I work on the People team, so naturally, I have a very people-focused role. Like all of us in people-focused roles, this can mean we often give a lot of ourselves into emotional workplace situations. I truly care about my teammates and the people around me. It’s part of who I am and why I love my job. But it can also mean…you guessed it, burnout.

We all suffer from stress differently. For example, according to the Mayo Clinic, burnout can be physical, like fatigue, insomnia, high blood pressure, or unexplained issues like headaches or stomach pains. But it can also be mental, such as feeling more cynical about work, unexplained sadness or irritability, brain fog, or inability to concentrate. 

Conversations start at the top

Despite a growing awareness of burnout and other mental health issues, it’s still hard to talk about. Creating a sense of psychological safety starts at the very top. In fact, our founder, David Darminin, talks about his own experience with burnout quite a bit in an effort to show that it’s okay to not be okay.

At Hotjar, we take the stance that mental health is health, which means that if we want to be serious about the well-being of our employees, we have to think about mental health as well. 

For us, that means our executive leadership encourages taking care of yourself and preventing burnout. In action, this looks like modeling work-life balance and championing policies that everyone can take advantage of, such as:

  • Encouraging our leadership team to regularly check in with their team on personal as well as work-related matters

  • Listening to team feedback and hiring efficiently and often, rather than waiting for a team member to get completely overwhelmed before approving a new opening

  • Offering a well-being budget of €2,400 per year to be used for any aspect of health, from massages to fitness memberships to therapy appointments

  • Ensuring no distinctions between sick days and mental health days to encourage team members to take time off

  • Allotting 40 paid vacation days per year, and frequent encouragement from leadership to their teams to take this downtime and step fully away from work

  • Giving unlimited unpaid leave, in addition to our set paid leave

  • Creating purpose-driven goals with three objectives and key results (OKRs) per year, so we’re all working together

​​Establishing a safe environment where people can talk about burnout must be something the company’s leadership team is a part of—they have a key role in leading by example to normalize the discussion. This is so important for us as a globally distributed team. 

Everyone comes from a different cultural and familial background and may not feel comfortable opening up and talking about these so-called ‘taboo’ subjects. But the more we can create a work environment where people feel safe coming forward and being open, the more we can start to normalize these conversations and help our teammates take better care of themselves.

Host one-to-one check-ins to support teammates

How many one-to-ones have you attended with your very well-meaning manager where you go through a laundry list of items in a whirlwind and then end the call?

Creating a sense of psychological safety isn’t just something that executives need to model (though I’m very thankful that David and the rest of the team are so open!). It’s something that needs to be reaffirmed every week on your one-to-one calls with your team.

Instead of saying, “What’s going on this week?” ask, “How can I support you right now?”. Even better, come to the call with offers of ways you can support them. You need to put effort into the personal relationship you have with your team. That’s what makes a great leader, and not just a good manager who knows how to check all the boxes. 

Your team won’t necessarily put all of their personal life on display for you, nor do they have to (it’s their personal life, after all), but the more you can know them as people—not just what they do at work every day—the more likely you’ll be able to open up a conversation with them about how they’re feeling and what support they need to be proactive against burnout.

Normalize re-prioritizing workloads as needed

Even though we do our best to reduce hierarchy at Hotjar, there’s still a power dynamic that exists between a team leader and their report in any company, which might make it difficult for some people to talk about their stress levels. Who wants to admit that they’re having a hard time concentrating or that something in their personal life is impacting their work?

This is one of the reasons we arrange our teams in small squads of approximately five people, most of whom operate in an agile model where they’re checking in with one another on a daily basis. 

Everyone knows what everyone else is working on for a given week, and we take a step back and reflect on how things are going on a one or two-week cadence. It becomes much easier to spot when a teammate is overloaded or overwhelmed (which can happen to the best of us!) through this strong sense of connection.

Fostering this awareness starts at the prioritization stage of any project. Each team member can look at a backlog of tasks and say, “I think this is as much as I can do in this amount of time.” And this helps the team to prioritize well. 

Rather than pile on and pile on and pile on, it’s expected that the team or squad moves through each project together, shifting around workloads as needed. Because of these regular check-ins, it’s possible to re-prioritize as things come up or if people realize they overbooked themselves.

Just because you wrote it down somewhere a few days ago doesn’t mean it can’t change, as long as everyone knows what’s going on.

Remember: everyone is fighting a battle that you know nothing about

Right before I realized I was burned out, I had a call with two of our engineering leaders. It was a completely normal call about hiring needs, but during it, I burst into tears and couldn’t stop. 

It was my breaking point, where I knew that something was wrong. 

Instead of staying silent, after we ended the call, both of my teammates reached out to me on Slack to ask if I was okay and if they could help at all. I received nothing but support from them and from my lead.

Would I recommend bursting into tears in front of your teammates? No, not really. I wish I’d made a change before getting to that point. But the important takeaway from this is that they saw me as a person first and not just their co-worker with a job to do. There were no negative repercussions to me showing my emotions, only support. 

It’s time to open up about burnout

Normalizing talking about mental health issues like burnout starts with remembering that your team members are people, too. They’ve got lives and families and responsibilities that have nothing to do with work, just like you do. And while you may be talking to each other from hundreds of miles and several time zones away, you may be able to help them see better than themselves that they might be experiencing burnout or need to take a break.

Burnout is something anyone can experience—and while I’m much more aware of what it looks like for me, it’s still a work in progress for the warning signs to be understood more widely throughout companies. 

But the more we all start to talk about managing our workloads in a healthy way, creating a stronger sense of work-life balance, showing up to work as authentically as we can, and importantly, recognizing signs of stress in ourselves and others, the better off we’ll all be.

If you are feeling exhausted, depleted, or overwhelmed, consider speaking to your doctor or a mental health professional to get help with what you are experiencing.

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