How do you work with and manage an exhausted team?

Tiredness, fatigue, exhaustion – whatever you want to call it, its effect on people is not a positive one. 

Burnout – “The syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” has been described by WHO as an ‘occupational phenomenon’. With the definition updated in May 2019 to help remove some of the stigma around it (and mental health on a wider scale), burnout is characterised by three specific dimensions:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • Reduced professional efficacy.

If left unchecked, it can also lead to serious health problems including high blood pressure, depression and heart disease which costs the global economy in excess of $255bn per year

Individual exhaustion can be partially mitigated by the sufferer by changing their routine or stepping up their ‘self-care’ to limit/undo the damage. But what happens when the exhaustion is communal and your entire team is on the verge of burnout? How can you bring them back from the brink before it’s too late and delivery and morale are seriously impacted?

Before trying to find a way to solve (and eventually prevent) the problem, it’s important to understand the causes of collective exhaustion. As a CTO, some of the triggers you’ll have direct control over and may even be contributing to. Others may be less obvious or indirect and it then becomes your job to not only protect your team from the negative effects, but take steps to minimise the harm, if unable to eradicate the causes entirely.  

10 causes of team exhaustion

While this list is by no means exhaustive, these are the most common reasons that tech teams begin to buckle under stress and team cohesion and quality of work starts to suffer: 

  1. Constant pressure to deliver – Almost every engineer will have been in this situation, especially in a startup environment. Often you have to choose between software being delivered on time and good software being produced. In companies that lack quality assurance layers (whether due to cost and/or capability), the responsibility falls to the engineers. This can add an immense amount of pressure to deliver and some won’t respond well.
  1. Unrealistic expectations – Not all managers and stakeholders will have technical knowledge; many won’t. This can create a chasm between what is expected to be produced and the reality. Expectations can also change as ideas roll in, without the full understanding of what is possible, the time it takes to make such changes or the capacity and capabilities of the development team to achieve the new objectives.  
  1. Inefficiency – Multitasking is commonplace but study after study has shown it to be ineffective when it involves complex rather than simple tasks. This is because it requires rapid context switching and rather than doing one thing well, it actually means both are done averagely. Multitasking can also affect productivity by up to 40% and take up to 25 minutes to regain focus on the initial task. Sometimes inefficiency is the result of management piling on the workload, working processes that don’t permit single focus or a lack of consideration or foresight during the project planning stages. This creates the illusion that more is being done in less time, but also adds to the overwhelm of how many things need to be completed by a certain point. 
  1. Lack of direction or purpose – If a company has a vision that is unclear or miscommunicated, or worse, a leader that doesn’t buy into it, the team(s) will be left floundering. Nothing unites a team quicker than working towards a common goal, understanding their place in the process and believing that what they’re doing is creating value. Likewise, nothing exhausts them quicker than not knowing why they have to do something or feeling like they are pushing things out into an abyss without good reason.  
  1. Blame culture – No one likes making mistakes, but it is part of life and inevitably, development. When team members are reluctant to speak out, take risks, or accept responsibility at work because they fear criticism, punishment, or being fired, it can foster a deep-seated fear, make people feel paranoid and encourage a culture of secrecy. This is a toxic and exhausting environment to be in when people spend most of their waking hours at work.  
  1. Team dynamics – These are the unconscious, psychological forces that influence the direction of a team’s behaviour and performance. Team dynamics are created by the nature of the team’s work, the personalities within the team including managers, their working relationships with other people, and the environment in which the team works. While you can’t expect people to get on all the time and there will be those personalities that complement each other more than others, the dynamics should be underlined by working collaboratively towards a common goal. If the people and/or environment is high-stress, drama-fuelled and unsupportive, it is going to leave people feeling drained. 
  1. Lack of control/micromanagement – In his book Drive, Daniel Pink discusses his ‘Motivation Framework’ for teams, a part of which is ‘autonomy’ – that people are trusted and encouraged to take ownership of their own work and skill development. When a team feels like their workload/schedule is being dictated to them,  they’re being performance managed within an inch of their lives or they have no say in leadership decisions that will impact them, it contributes to the feeling of being out of control and demoralised. 
  1. Unpleasant physical working environment – It’s easy to assume that the office space (or in the current situation, home-working space) works for everyone, but it entirely depends not only on the personalities of those within your team, but also that the setup enables them to work well with each other. Some people like open spaces as it allows for collaboration, but it also generates noise which can be distracting for others. A 2019 poll conducted by Aspect found that 83% of UK adults consider their workplace to be an ‘unpleasant’ environment, with many citing uncomfortable temperatures, lack of natural light, unpleasant smells, and no fresh air among their complaints. If a team’s space and an atmosphere isn’t given much thought or is actively uncomfortable to work in, it isn’t going to breed a desire to come to work when it zaps, rather than creates energy. 
  1. Lack of capacity or mismatch in capabilities – According to a CIPD report, skills mismatches – which occur when someone either doesn’t have the skills to cope with more demanding duties or lacks some of the key skills required to perform their job effectively – have important individual and organisational ramifications. Those in mismatched roles are more likely to suffer from psychological distress, report lower job satisfaction and more likely to want to quit. These factors produce a further knock-on effect for the organisations they work for, manifesting in poorer staff retention and reduced workforce productivity.
  1. Failure – You’ll be familiar with the agile saying ‘fail fast’, a philosophy that values extensive testing and incremental development to determine whether an idea has value. An important part of this lean methodology, however, is to cut losses when testing reveals something isn’t working and quickly try something else, a concept known as pivoting. However, when a team has a string of only failures behind them, their confidence and drive to work harder towards a win will be affected. 

What are the signs of team burnout?

Team exhaustion can manifest itself in a number of ways. In some instances, it may be harder to spot where individuals’ resilience to external pressure varies and burnout, therefore, takes longer to take hold of everyone (or at least the majority). 

Before it gets to this point, there will be some tell-tale signs that may indicate your team is on the verge of burnout. These manifestations of exhaustion can be procedural, behavioural and/or emotional and they may be present all at once, or ebb and flow as other factors such as hiring and organisational changes come into play. 

So how can you recognise the warning signs as they present themselves and nip them in the bud before it goes too far?

Procedural signs 

The team’s workload might not have changed, but there seems to be a reduction in productivity and what would normally be done in a set amount of time is taking longer for no discernable reason. Or, on the face of it, there’s no change in input, but the output doesn’t seem to match the effort. Is there a decrease in the quality of the product or increased mistakes during development? If so, burnout could be at play. Think about what might have got your team to that point and, if any of the causes of exhaustion listed above have been present, focus on eliminating them. 

Behavioural signs 

Is your team lacking in motivation or there’s a general feeling of malaise amongst them? When you call them on something, is there a lack of accountability and/or passing the buck, or have you noticed they aren’t working well together on projects in the way they once used to? Increased conflicts, quicker to denounce something as not working, or a general lack of willingness to collaborate are all signs that something is wrong. 

It might seem obvious, but also check if your team is visibly exhausted. Burnout can also manifest itself in a team’s physical behaviours; things to look out for in individuals are moving and talking slowly, a lack of clarity of thought (and thereby an inability to articulate themselves well) or impaired ability to judge situations and make good decisions.

Emotional signs 

Mindset is often viewed as a very personal thing, but a positive one can rub off and motivate those around you, helping others see things in a more optimistic light and improving their problem-solving skills. Likewise, a negative mindset can have a negative effect especially when it comes to working together. If one or two people on a team are lacking in confidence or self-esteem, or prone to regularly sharing their unconstructive bad feelings (especially during a team setting like standups or retros) it can have a wider impact on team resilience.

The same can be said for emotional responses to stress. A team member’s ability to deal with external stressors again is personal, but if it is noticeable, unpleasant and happens in the workplace, it can undermine team cohesion and has to be prevented or facilitated constructively before it further harms the team’s bond.  

Are you seeing angry outbursts when asked to do something? Anxiety and panic when faced with change? Walk-outs during meetings or 1:1s, and a lack of focus – or apathy – during team challenges? If so, these are all flags that point to overwhelm and burnout. While it may only be one person exhibiting these emotional responses, the stress of witnessing or being around it over a period of time can be enough for others to absorb some of the negative feelings and drain the team as a whole.  

What can you do to manage the exhaustion?

Luckily, there are several things you can do to help guide your team through a difficult period and/or collective exhaustion. It is worth noting that while most of these ‘fixes’ will help, it can take time to see a positive change. Many are part of overall good organisational practice and should be looked at in the wider context of culture and leadership to ensure that they are being used to prevent rather than simply ‘cure’ burnout. 

  • Acknowledge the exhaustion – First and foremost, a team needs to feel supported and they won’t if their manager fails to tell it like it is. Recognition of hard times goes a long way for some people and will show that you are seeing and hearing your team when things are bad as well as good;
  • Seek out quick wins – If your team has faced a series of failures and has taken a confidence battering, find quick, easy wins that will allow them to start building it back up;
  • Pairing – If you pair people together or ask them to work in small groups, they can keep each other accountable so that nothing is missed. A team approach can also promote better efficiency so the workers can get things out the door faster, as everyone is together in one place to brainstorm, ask questions or share resources;
  • Promote work/life balance – Overtime should only be done on a genuine needs/must basis. Don’t encourage it or 24/7 accessibility via phone and email because your team will feel harangued and unable to switch off. If there is too much work to be done in the allotted time, the answer isn’t simply to extend core working hours; goals must be practical and most importantly, achievable and if not, then look at why and adapt processes to allow for this;
  • Flexibility – Reward times of increased working with increased rest and remove anything non-necessary/urgent for a period of time to prevent further overwhelm and overwork. Allow team members to dictate their schedules where possible. Some will work better at 8am and some at 4pm, so capitalise on that and show you trust them to know what their strengths are and give them the tools to play to them;
  • Create a healthy, productive working environment – When things are manic, lunch hours are the first to go, but there is a good reason as to why they were implemented in the first place. Workers are not machines. Time away from their desks – even during busy periods – can offer a new perspective, breathing space and time to think, all things which benefit the development process;
  • Encourage social support and respect within and among work teams – This will help promote strong relationships and collective responsibility for each other’s well being;
  • Feedback/radical candourGood communication is at the core of any cohesive team – allowing a safe space to raise concerns or worries can help ensure they don’t turn into bigger problems further down the line;
  • ‘Energy charge’ standups – Where possible, hold daily check-ins with your team and ask them to give you a no-questions-asked ‘energy’ reading. You can then collectively plan team sprints/days around this, allowing space and rest for those that aren’t feeling 100% to recharge and come back fighting;
  • Recognise the whole person – The world of work is thankfully moving away from the idea of compartmentalising ‘work side’ vs ‘home side’, but not fast enough. It would be a mistake to think that things unrelated to work don’t impact work and vice versa. Don’t shy away from asking team members about their needs and encourage openness, sharing and most importantly, empathy. This allows you to all pull together to help support people through the tough times;
  • Varied work – Monotony causes boredom, which creates physical problems like lethargy. Mixing this up will positively impact the creative thinking process and increase motivation;
  • Dilute conflict – While it’s common and understandable to give difficult tasks to the person usually most adept at dealing with them, spreading them out across the team will decrease the burden on certain individuals and foster the feeling of ‘all being in it together’;
  • Practice servant leadership – This philosophy is based on putting your team first, and yourself second. Servant leadership is not a leadership style or technique per se, rather it’s a way of behaving that you implement over the longer term and ensures your key job is to support and protect your team no matter what; and
  • Encourage collective resilience – In 2019, Ernst & Young and The Energy Project set out to test a hypothesis: If all members of a client-serving team rallied together to build more rest and renewal into their lives using a five-step plan, they would feel better and they’d get more work accomplished in less time. At the end of the busy season, team members reported feeling dramatically better than they had following the previous busy season. Those who had been deeply fatigued a year earlier recovered significantly more quickly this time. It also saw a 97.5% team retention rate five months later – an encouraging result that can be easily replicated across all teams.

With the way technology is moving and the ‘all-hands-on-deck’ mentality of startups, collective exhaustion is more prevalent than ever. With the right tools and approaches in place however, you can help your team build collective resilience. This will help prevent burnout in the first place, or, if it does happen, ensure your team operates in the right environment and has the right leadership support to bounce back faster and hardier than before. 


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