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The Antidote to Manager Burnout

The Antidote to Manager Burnout

by Jennifer Robison

Story Highlights

  • Manager burnout can affect the entire team
  • Addressing burnout starts with identifying the challenges managers face
  • Focusing on strengths helps managers lean into what they do best

Successful businesses depend on effective managers -- productivity, performance, engagement and retention all spring from great managers. But what if the manager is burned out? What happens to the organization? What happens to the manager?

Nothing good.

The World Health Organization says burnout is characterized by exhaustion, increased mental distance from the job and reduced professional efficacy. Gallup finds that about three in four American workers say they experience burnout on the job at least sometimes. Worse, 29% report feeling burned out at work very often or always.1 These severely burned-out workers are 63% more likely to take a sick day and 23% more likely to visit the emergency room.

That exhaustion and alienation focuses burned-out workers more on getting through the day than developing for the future. As a result, the organization's decision-making, customer service, quality control and innovation stall as employee performance falters.

However, when managers are exhausted and alienated, your organization's vulnerability increases. Managers are responsible for the burnout antidotes of engagement and wellbeing -- so when they burn out, individual contributors can't hope for much help.

And Gallup recently discovered that managers are even likelier than the people they manage to experience burnout.

In other words, the people most responsible for team performance are also at the highest risk of burning out.

Reversing that awful trend will stabilize your managers -- reason enough -- but it will also revitalize your teams. Everyone is staring down another long, pandemic-scarred winter, and shoring your people up will improve your organizational resilience. Your most effective strategy probably starts with managers and the problems that could contribute to their burnout.

Tackle Your Managers' Greatest Challenges

Gallup's extensive research on the manager experience shows that burnout affects managers the same way as everybody else, but the role has unique challenges that may exacerbate the problem. The five most common challenges are:

  • Unclear expectations. Over four in 10 managers strongly agree that they have multiple competing priorities.

  • Heavy workload and distractions. The average manager's workweek is half a day longer than the average individual contributor's, and two in 10 managers say they have too much to do. Managers are 67% more likely than individual contributors to strongly agree they have a lot of interruptions at work.

  • Job stress and frustrations. About a third of managers say the demands of the job interfere with their family life. Over a third agree they felt stressed "during a lot of my most recent workday."

  • Less focus on their strengths. Managers are less likely than individual contributors to believe they have the opportunity to do what they do best at work. They're also less likely to have work properly delegated to them, as most of their time is dedicated to meeting the needs of others.

  • Frustrating performance reviews. Only 8% of managers strongly agree their performance reviews inspire them to improve. They're even more skeptical about the fairness and accuracy of performance reviews than their employees are.

Managers are responsible for the burnout antidotes of engagement and wellbeing -- so when they burn out, individual contributors can't hope for much help.

These challenges are common to managers, but they don't experience challenges all day, every day. And even on those days when challenges are heavy, nimbly sidestepping them can be a lot of fun. But some days, managers disappoint people above and below them, everything is a priority, there's more work than time, they don't know how to navigate pay conversations and performance reviews -- especially their own -- even though they're crucial, and their decision-making is more reactionary than intentional. They're not happy about their performance and don't know what to do.

Most days aren't like that, but too many in a row will sap a manager's enthusiasm and shake their confidence -- and exacerbate the potential for burnout. The solution, naturally, is to reduce the number of days like that. You'll find the key in the other side of the manager's experience, the perks.

The Best Parts of the Manager Experience

You'll also find you have plenty to work with. The positive aspects of the manager experience are personally and professionally meaningful to managers. Most of them are proud of their role and honored to have it, dedicated to helping their people succeed as individuals and employees, and they feel like an integral part of their company's success. As they are. So the perks of the job mean a great deal to the manager, and there are a number of them:

  • Voice and involvement in decision-making. Managers are 31% more likely than individual contributors to strongly agree that their opinion counts. They feel a greater sense of control in the decision-making process and are ambassadors for their team.

  • Autonomy and control over their work. Managers are able to delegate work and match skills to tasks, which benefits their team and themselves. Managers who have the training to match strengths to tasks -- their own and their employees' -- benefit even more.

  • Collaborative work environment. Managers receive over 30% more feedback and help from their coworkers than individual contributors get. That not only directs their work but also makes them feel cared about -- which is essential to their engagement.

  • Opportunities for development and career advancement. Sixty-six percent of managers report having access to a professional development program. They are more likely than individual team members to report having the skills they need to excel and to understand how their performance affects their opportunities for promotion.

  • Motivating pay incentives. Managers are more likely than individual contributors to be motivated by their pay and incentives. They tend to have a better understanding of how their performance affects their income.

So even on high-pressure days, managers have the authority and flexibility to control their own workflow. That lets them play to their strengths. They're close to the decision-makers and involved in conversations about organizational needs, so they can see that their ideas and opinions matter to leaders. That gives them influence, and influence opens doors for their team and their own growth.

Meanwhile, they get to co-create a collaborative ecosystem with other managers, a network of peers working shoulder to shoulder with them and cheering them on. They know their work matters, they know they matter, and they know where they're going from here. The money isn't bad either.

Amplify the Positive by Minimizing the Negative

Leveraging those positives in the manager experience is a crucial, practical tactic. If you do it by simultaneously defanging the challenges, you'll magnify the effect. Start with these initiatives.

Clarify expectations and involve managers in decision-making: Connect weekly and informally to discuss priorities, barriers and recent achievements with each manager (and include higher-ranking leaders occasionally). Nothing reduces burnout faster than getting on the same page and providing ongoing support. These conversations are also engaging because they show your managers how their work drives the organization's purpose, brand and culture -- all while setting collaborative goals that move everyone forward through alignment and ownership.

Right-size workloads and give managers control over their work: Be clear about priorities while you outline what is and isn't in the manager's purview so that managers can do their job their own way. As long as they engage their teams and achieve the required outcomes, managers should have flexibility, autonomy and ownership. However, ambitious and diligent managers may take on so much that they don't have time to think and organize. You might have to encourage them to set time aside for themselves every day and empower their own set of "lieutenants" so the work can continue when managers are out of pocket.

Spur collaboration and reduce stress: Engineer manager networks for mutual support, cross-functional collaboration and trusting relationships. Encourage feedback loops a level up and down. Talk to each manager about the kinds of work that should be done alone or in a group -- particularly in hybrid organizations -- according to the needs of the task and individual. And invest in a wellbeing program engineered specifically for managers: Gallup analysis finds that when employees strongly agree that their organization cares about their overall wellbeing, 59% of them also believe they can always bounce back after hardship.

Develop managers and focus on their strengths: Assess each manager's CliftonStrengths and identify ways for them to do more of what they do best. Help them build strong partnerships, especially with peers who complement that manager's strengths -- managers are 46% less likely than individual contributors to strongly agree their work is delegated to them properly. Define key experiences for managers and map their career advancement toward them. That will help them visualize the future -- which is key to achieving it -- and shows that you care about them as people.

The Most Urgent Time to Address Burnout

You may have noticed that active leadership is threaded through those tactics. It signifies how much your managers depend on you for their success in the role and as people. As a leader, your participation is vital. As a coach, your intervention is transformational. And right now, transforming the manager experience may be necessary.

Be clear about priorities while you outline what is and isn't in the manager's purview so that managers can do their job their own way.

The World Health Organization declared burnout an occupational phenomenon in its global standard for diagnostic health information in May 2019 -- before the pandemic. Just over a year later, a FlexJobs/Mental Health America survey found only a fifth of U.S. employees could say they were able to openly discuss burnout with HR, and half said they get the emotional support they need at work to help manage their stress.

Maybe it's to be expected that Gallup's 2021 State of the Global Workplace report found extraordinarily high rates of worry, stress, anger and sadness among employees across the world.

But the pandemic didn't invent burnout. It's been damaging businesses and individuals for years. There's never been a more urgent time to address it, though, and a systemic approach may be the most effective antidote.

The antidote may work better and faster with a specialized focus on the manager's experience. Nothing good happens when managers burn out. They're instrumental to productivity, performance, engagement and retention -- in brief, a substantial portion of your success. A substantial portion of your burnout response should focus on their experience as well.

Make your organization a place where people can thrive.


[1] 2021 Gallup COVID-19 Workforce Study: Survey responses from 14,419 full-time employees (excluding self-employed), collected January-December 2021. Margin of error was ±1 percentage point.

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