How to Keep You and Your Team from Burning Out

By Alison Davis

Uber's CFO Brent Callinicos resigned this week to spend more time with his family. No, it's not a euphemism for a rushed exit: His primary reason for leaving the company is to keep a promise to his wife of "not missing another school play, swim meet, or academic achievement of our daughter's childhood."

That's certainly a lovely sentiment. But as a CEO of a service company, my first thought was there's something wrong in Uber-land. Work-life balance should be an integral part of the employment agreement; an employee should not have to sacrifice his or her personal life to be successful. (Or have to quit to see his or her family.)

As I write this, it sounds strangely radical, at least in the work-obsessed United States. These days, many of my colleagues are working crazy hours, even if they're not in the C suite (or earning C suite-sized compensation).

What's the problem? Quite simply, bad management. Well-run companies (or teams) don't have to burn people out to be financially healthy. Here are six strategies for creating an organization that is both productive and balanced:

  1. Make balance as much a priority as financial results. I'm going to be straight with you: My company would make a lot more money if we set higher expectations for billability. There's an old trick used by a lot of consulting firms and agencies: set billability goals at 100% of a 40-hour workweek. What that means, of course, is that employee has to work a heck of lot more hours a week in order to meet their goals and have lunch, do administrative tasks, attend training, etc. Davis & Company sets much lower productivity goals than our competitors. We start by building in days off, then we factor in non-billable activities. Yes, our revenues are lower, but our balance is much, much higher.
  2. Allocate sufficient resources. A staff of eight can never do the work of 10 or 12 people, no matter how many hours of overtime they put in. My firm is constantly analyzing our resource model, making decisions about how to use freelancers or contract workers vs. adding new hires based on our projections.
  3. Set clear expectations. One reason that employees waste a lot of spinning from task to task is they don't know what to focus on. Identity what really matters to support company performance and achieve individual success. Be specific about what "good" and "great" look like.
  4. Help employees prioritize. If everything seems equally important, nothing is actually a priority. You must be able to distinguish between mission-critical work and stuff that can be put off (or handled quickly). And you have to be diligent about setting priorities on a regular basis (as often as weekly or even daily). Plus, you need to defend your team members' right not to get things done right away.
  5. Create a generous time-off policy--then hold people accountable for taking the time they're entitled to. In a previous column, I described our time off program, which can be summed up like this: We give a lot of time off--and encourage employees to take it. (It seems painfully obvious, but I'll say it anyway: Time off is a great antidote to burnout.)
  6. Exemplify the behavior you are advocating. In other words, you must walk the talk. For example, I used to wake up in the middle of the night and send emails. Now I wait until at least 6 a.m. (still early, I know, but at least it's defensible). And I really really try to take time off (including weekends), even though that's hard for me.

Here's the secret: By modeling work-life balance, I actually get a breather. That means my team is not only better rested, I am, too.