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Managing burnout for teams working in high-risk environments

Modern leadership and burnout: How to take care of your team

Modern leadership means many things. As a leader, you’re responsible for keeping your team focused, for giving them direction by making their goals and your expectations clear, and for keeping the team’s efforts productive and streamlined. But beyond the business goals and outputs – and in order to achieve the business goals and outputs, in fact – effective modern leadership is human.  

The best leaders take care of their teams. They are empathetic and enforce healthy boundaries, and they recognise the individual beyond their role at work. 

Managing a stressed team in a high-risk environment 

Empathetic leadership can be a challenge no matter what environment or industry you work in. But when you’re working in a high-risk context, that difficulty is compounded. It’s easy for one team member’s low morale to spread quickly to other over-stretched workers, sometimes with terrible impact.  

As an organisation that’s very much at home in high-risk areas, Assist360 has seen first-hand how burnout can pose significant risk to individuals and teams in these regions – and we’ve become adept at addressing the causes and results of burnout. If you’re leading a team in a high-risk region, take the time to learn how you can mitigate the effects of an intensely stressful environment to safeguard the people you manage and the important work they do.  


Team members working in high-risk roles and environments are at significant risk of experiencing burnout.

What is burnout?

‘Burnout’ is a term that describes a condition very much like what you’d imagine from the name: a lack of enthusiasm, energy or purpose.  

A feeling of emotional, cognitive and sometimes physical exhaustion in burnout can sometimes present as:  

  • Difficulty making decisions 
  • A feeling of indifference or dread about activities you once enjoyed 
  • A short temper  
  • An inability to regulate your emotions as you once could.  

It’s important to remember that burnout isn’t a medical diagnosis, and some of what looks like burnout could be a symptom of a condition like depression that requires very different treatment. But if symptoms have developed recently and can be alleviated relatively simply with the steps we’ll describe below, then yes, that’s probably burnout.  

Recognising the signs of burnout in high-risk environments 

The World Health Organization tells us that burnout is “included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon. It is not classified as a medical condition.” So, what does the ICD-11 tell us about burnout?  

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”, the publication explains, before elaborating on three characteristics of burnout to look out for:  

  • Energy depletion 

If a worker is feeling exhausted, unable to summon the energy to perform what used to be routine tasks, or just unusually tired for a sustained period of time, this might be a warning sign of burnout.  

  • Mental distance from, or negativity about, one’s job 

Assuming that the person affected didn’t hate their job to begin with, a cynical attitude about the job, or a general lack of feeling about it, is a shift that points to burnout.  

  • Reduced professional efficacy  

When an employee who’s previously been efficient in their role becomes burnt-out, one of the ways that it’ll show up will be in reduced performance.  

How does burnout affect travellers in high-risk regions? 

The term ‘burnout’ can be used usefully in many settings, so you’ll probably have heard it applied to people in high-pressure jobs across industries and contexts. In a high-risk region, a perfect storm of factors is at play to increase the chance of burnout.   

A lack of resources often means being stretched too thin and the need to work long hours, a (necessary) awareness of potentially dangerous situations means that ‘taking a break’ doesn’t necessarily mean complete relaxation, and fragile political conditions mean that it’s not always possible to plan in any traditional sense.  

Before burnout: Preventative measures for healthy teams

If you’re an experienced manager, some of this advice might seem obvious. That’s the point: for workers in a high-risk environment, good management should be a consistent source of stability and security that prioritises positive routines rather than casting them aside when intensity in and around the workplace increases.  

  • Communicate clearly 

If possible, check in with your team for a few minutes daily and for a slightly longer time slot each week. Try to provide clarity to your team about what to expect in the coming hours, days or weeks – and when you can’t, be clear about that, too.  


An effective manager preempts and addresses their team’s escalating stress levels, communicating clearly and providing protection.

In high-risk situations, this includes discussions of worst-case scenarios, and letting your team know how they’ll be protected and cared for in case of an emergency. This may feel alarmist if your situation isn’t currently volatile, but it provides a sense of security to those members of your team who have these scenarios on their minds, whether they’re discussing it or not. If your team is feeling burnt out, acknowledge this, and encourage them to do so, too, before things get worse. 

  • Manage workload and time pressure – and prioritise fairness 

As you work through your plans and expectations for an upcoming week, consider whether you feel that labour is divided fairly between team members and whether the expectations of your team members are well-matched to their ability. There won’t always be time for discussion and negotiation of roles and responsibilities during a workday, so try to encourage your team’s input at this point. Do they feel that they’re receiving a fair portion of tasks and responsibilities, or have suggestions about how to operate more fairly?  

  • Find real ways to support your team  

Once you’ve done your part to communicate expectations and parameters to your team, you should be better able to gauge what’s working for them and what’s an ongoing struggle. Next, it’s up to you to consider how to act on that communication.  

There’ll be some things that you can’t change – particularly in a high-pressure, high-risk role – but there will always be practical steps that you can take to help your team prioritise their wellbeing. If someone has been able to share that they’re feeling more burnt-out since longer hours caused them to quit their exercise habit, help them find the time for this healthy way of coping.

Welcome team members’ requests for leave, and proactively approach those who never take a day off to encourage them to commit to some downtime, with the reminder that they’re doing more for the team by keeping themselves mentally healthy than by working themselves to the brink of burnout.  

And remember, lead by example: if you’re encouraging others to lean on you for support, you’ll need to model behaviour that puts your wellbeing first. 

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