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Buckets Exercise: A Tool for Discussing Employee Burnout

Burnout Approacheth

SomeeCards

Once upon a time there was an employee who felt … burned out. She approached her boss, who valued the employee but didn’t quite know how to lighten her heavy workload.

To understand what was weighing her down, her kind boss requested a list of what was currently on her large, overflowing, no-way-she-can-finish-all-this-Thanksgiving-sized plate. But beware: by asking her employee to list all those things off the top of her pretty redhaired head, she risked receiving in return a list fueled by exhaustion instead of facts. If only they had a tool that would come to their aid.

As you may have guessed, the employee in this tale is me. Mack is the kind boss helping to address employee burnout. And what follows is how we came up with a tool we call the Buckets Exercise to begin an honest conversation together.

The Birth of a New Tool

Why is this exercise being brought to you by Mack Web?

Even though Mack Web specializes in digital marketing, we have experienced our fair share of ups and downs and learned how to handle those as a team. In addition, connecting with people on a human level is on our “we heart these things the mostest” list. So in Mack Web fashion, we like to share with you what we’re learning. Sometimes that means walking you through how to set the right goals for your digital marketing. Or in this case it means walking you through a tool we created to help take care of teammates who are struggling.

It’s rare for me to meet someone who hasn’t experienced employee burnout, and most of us would say that when it hits, it hits hard. Much like a fighter jet that’s running out of gas, eventually you’ll run on vapors, and when those run out, you’ll crash and burn. Not only is this devastating to the person who is on that downward trajectory, but it can be detrimental to your team. Our hope is that by sharing this exercise (even in its early stages), more teams will have a starting point from which to address potential burnout and prevent that proverbial “crash and burn.”

This exercise provides a framework from which to start. And sometimes finding a place to start is the hardest part.

Why “Buckets”?

Ideally, we should be able to place everything we do for our company under specific categories (or “buckets”) that align with the roles we were hired to fill.

Blue buckets

As it happens, Mack is a very visual person, so what she needed to see to help me talk through my Mack Web workload was a visual representation of all my tasks thrown into large “buckets.” Here are some examples to give you an idea of what this could look like:

BUCKETS

  • account coordination
  • project management
  • meetings
  • strategy development
  • content

TASKS

  • client communication
  • execution calendars
  • meeting agendas
  • new business reviews
  • writing this blog post

It’s a for-sure bet that Mack would have loved for me to bring in actual buckets filled with all my tasks written on individual slips of paper. However, it turns out that I don’t have a bucket fetish, so I couldn’t oblige. Instead I opted for something a little more practical: a Google spreadsheet.

Embracing the Digital Age

I know, I know – snoozarama. But hear me out. As it turns out, a shared Google doc fit the bill because it met my key criteria, meaning I could:

  • easily brainstorm with a single tool (without finding paper and plastic buckets)
  • effortlessly edit or make changes
  • collaborate with another person without physical barriers – anytime, anywhere
  • revisit the exercise should burnout approacheth again
  • share this exercise with others on our team for their own customized use

But Not Everyone Has a Boss Who Cares Enough

Before we get much further, I want to recognize the sad reality that not everyone has a boss who is willing to do what it takes to keep a valued employee happy.

As it pertains to your vocational happiness, this exercise yields the best results if you have a boss who really cares about you and is open to making some positive changes based on what your Buckets reveal. But if you don’t feel that this exercise is right for you to do together (due to personal baggage or professional limitations), that’s okay. You can still do this on your own so that you can benefit from any revelations. Only then can you start working toward bettering your situation.

The Buckets Exercise: Let’s Do This

LetsDoThis

Step 1: Set Up the Framework

The first thing you do is create the spreadsheet itself. The overall look and structure is totally up to you, but you’ll need these things at a minimum (don’t worry – I’ll explain items 2-5 in a bit):

  1. Name, Job Title, and Date (for review purposes)
  2. Position Goals
  3. Columns for each “Bucket” – don’t forget meetings and special projects!
  4. Columns for tasks to be reassigned and to whom
  5. Warning Signs

Screenshot 1.b

(Click image to see full size.)

A note about your Buckets columns: How you decide to split these up may depend on your company’s organizational structure. But don’t worry too much about getting the column headers right. As you progress with the exercise, you can add or revise columns as you see fit. This is the time to start, not perfect.

Step 2: Review Your Position Goals

What is your role? I don’t just mean your job title (what’s in a title really?); I mean what is it that you were initially hired to accomplish? If your memory needs to be jogged, review that posted job description from when you were interviewing and distill it down to its main purpose in your company. As with everything we do at Mack Web, we like to start with goals.

Start everything with goals.

Recently, we’ve started giving nicknames to each Mack Web position, so as the Accounts Coordinator, I’m “the Glue.” My main goals are to interface with our clients and also make sure our team is pulled together and not falling apart (and the irony that I’m the reason this exercise was created in the first place doesn’t escape me).

Screenshot 2.b

Understanding your Position Goals will give you some guidelines when you eventually review each task that ends up in this spreadsheet. You’ll be able to hold each of these responsibilities up and ask: Is this task helping me fulfill the goals of this position or is it outside of my “scope” and stealing time away?

What is it that you were hired to accomplish?

Step 3: Do a Brain Dump

Think through all that you do on a daily basis and dump it into this spreadsheet. Notice that I didn’t say think through what your job was advertised to be when you were hired. Things tend to change once you’re actually fulfilling a role and as other strengths of yours are recognized by your team. This isn’t fundamentally a bad thing, but being able to see these deviations can help both you and your boss identify crucial patterns (more on this in step 7).

This step is where you jot down everything: big, small, in or out of scope, exciting or mundane. You can either start with your main Buckets columns and place tasks underneath those, or you can just start putting stuff in and organize them into Buckets later. Are you managing a team? Write it down. Are you the one that, for some unknown reason, waters the plants each week? Write that down, too. Don’t worry about repeating yourself – this is the brainstorming part where no idea is a bad idea.

Screenshot 3.b

(Click image to see full size.)

Step 4: Cover All Your Bases

Think your brain dump is complete? Don’t be so sure. Since workflow is dynamic and roles can blend together, don’t just trust your memory or this week’s to-do list. To feel confident that your list is more or less exhaustive, be sure to seek out these other resources:

  • job description (before hiring)
  • performance reviews
  • timesheets (to see how you’ve been spending your time)
  • emails (to refresh your memory on recent efforts)
  • Basecamp, Workamajig, or other team project management applications you may be using
  • work calendar (for recurring meetings)
  • company culture

A note about company culture: Don’t forget to include those activities that are highly valued by your company which translate into recurring tasks for everyone on your team. Most likely you were hired because you are a culture fit, which means you highly value these activities as well, so you may forget that, despite how fun they are, they take time to do during the week.

For example, at Mack Web we highly value learning and sharing that knowledge with others, so we all make time to read the latest industry articles and contribute to the Mack Web blog. We love that this is part of our jobs, but it does take time, so on the spreadsheet it must go.

Step 5: Take a Breather

You have now determined your Buckets and poured your tasks into them. Good work – you deserve a gold star. Now take that gold star and go away for a day or so. Use this time to let the dust settle so that you can return to your Buckets with a fresh, clear mind. During your break from this exercise, be mindful of how you’re spending your time – it may reveal a few more tasks to add to your spreadsheet.

Step 6: Review Your Buckets With a Fresh Mind

Now that you’re back from your break and your mind is fresh, go back into your Buckets and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do my Buckets accurately reflect my job?
  2. Do I need to rename a Bucket or add a few more?
  3. Which of the tasks listed are critical to achieving my Position Goals? (bold these)
  4. Are some of my tasks repeated? If so, do I need to delete the repeats or clarify them further?
  5. Are there tasks in my Buckets that don’t really belong to me? (highlight these)

A note about tasks that don’t belong to you: These are tasks that you feel don’t belong in your Buckets, either because of bandwidth or expertise. Perhaps you were helping out a co-worker one time by stepping out of your role, but then that task stuck. Or perhaps you’re currently in charge of purchasing office supplies, but that really belongs to your Office Manager. Whatever the case may be for why you feel a task doesn’t belong to you, be sure to note the task (and the reason).

Screenshot 4d

Is this task helping me fulfill the goals of my position or is it stealing time away?

Step 7: Identify Patterns

Now that you have everything you do listed right in front of you (don’t faint), it’s time to search for patterns. Remember: there’s a reason you decided to do this exercise – something is amiss with your role and you are feeling overwhelmed. Let’s see if this exercise has shed some light on what those patterns might be:

1. Review your bolded items (tasks critical to achieving your Position Goals). Do you get to spend enough time in your work day to focus on these priorities of your role? If not, what’s pulling you away from these things?

2. Review the highlighted items (those that don’t belong to you) and copy/paste them into the “Task to Reassign” column. Do these tasks have a common thread? If so, perhaps the common thread is that you’re fulfilling a role that needs to be staffed, or you’ve adopted tasks from someone else who is overloaded, or something else. If you aren’t able to identify a pattern, never fear. Your boss may be able to help you with that.

3. Another option that you may want to consider is to indicate those tasks that you absolutely love and those you despise (thanks to my officemate Ayelet for this tip). A potential benefit to this is you may be able to see a pattern that indicates you don’t have enough in your role that you enjoy doing (thus you may either be working out of your weaknesses instead of your strengths, or your interests have changed, etc.).

Step 8: Consider Possible Solutions

Before you send this over to your boss for review, go the extra mile and offer recommendations for reversing any patterns you may have identified. Don’t leave it up to her to fix this  – she’s not a mind reader or a magician. And if she’s willing to go through this exercise with you, she will also appreciate your initiative.

Prepare for your discussion time together by offering some solutions. For example, for those “not mine” items, provide suggestions in the “To Whom” column for who you feel would be better at owning those tasks.

Screenshot 5.b

Or perhaps you feel you aren’t able to focus on your priorities because you spend too much time participating in some of the company culture activities. If that’s a pattern you have identified, then provide your thoughts in this spreadsheet on how you may be able to continue participating in these activities but at a different level.

Whatever patterns come to light, be sure not to ignore them or brush them aside. Spend some time thinking about how those patterns may have developed, what your workload could look like if those patterns were broken, and then bring some ideas to the table for how to break them. This will provide a starting place for your conversation with your boss about how to address some of these issues.

Step 9: Recognize Your Warning Signs

Warning

The reason you’re doing this exercise in the first place is because you’re feeling the effects of employee burnout. But wouldn’t it be great if you could smell the smoke before you felt the flames? The best way to do that is to recognize your own warning signs.

Everyone experiences stress differently, and how we exhibit that stress can be just as unique. How do you feel when you’re under pressure? How do you self-medicate? Do you retreat or surround yourself with distractions? If you’re not sure, ask those closest to you – friends, family, spouse, partner, even a co-worker.

Know thyself. And once you do, place these warning signs into this section of the spreadsheet.

Screenshot 6.b

A note about warning signs: Sharing these warning signs with someone else is essential because you may be the last person to realize that you’re heading for burnout – you’re just too close to the situation. For example, if Mack starts to consistently receive emails from me at night, she can approach me and ask how I’m doing because I’ve identified this as one of my warning signs. I also recommend sharing these signs with another teammate because there’s no harm in having a secondary wake-up call.

You may be the last person to realize that you’re heading for burnout.

Step 10: It’s Boss Time

Once you’ve completed this exercise, schedule a time with your boss to go over your Buckets (you will need at least an hour). But be sure to share this spreadsheet with her a few days in advance so that she has time to digest.

Your boss should have a clear understanding of the role you were meant to play since she’s the one who probably hired you (or was involved in the process at some point). She will be able to look at your role from the top down (instead of in the weeds where you are), and her insights will be valuable at this stage.

Begin an honest conversation together.

Remember earlier when I said this exercise works best with a boss who cares? This is the spirit in which to approach this collaborative phase. This is the beginning of an honest conversation about your current role and the holes or problems you may have discovered, with the hope of finding solutions that will help you become a happier employee.

When I went through my Buckets with Mack, she was able to:

  1. Confirm that my Buckets were accurate.
  2. Review my Position Goals and make sure my priorities were aligned.
  3. Discuss any patterns I’d identified and affirm any tasks I’d labeled as “not mine.”
  4. Consider my recommendations for change and give me the power to make those changes.
  5. Become aware of my warning signs and be on the lookout.

Post-Buckets: Now What?

Now that you’ve completed the Buckets Exercise and discussed the crap out of it, now what do you do? You implement and test and see how things go. If one of your recommendations for change doesn’t yield the results you expect, re-evaluate and try something else. And keep the lines of communication open with your boss and your team.

Implement and test and see how things go.

Hang In There

This exercise isn’t a magic pill that will make everything all better. It’s simply a place to start a conversation. Positions evolve over time (as do people), so you may need to revisit this exercise if you sense burnout approaching again.

HangInThere

Since we developed the Buckets Exercise back in April, about half our team has gone through it, and it’s been an eye-opener. Each of us has customized it for our own unique roles and needs, and that’s the beauty of an exercise like this. It’s not a cookie cutter and it’s not rigid. But it does provide a framework from which to start. And sometimes finding a place to start is the hardest part.

What does your team use to address employee burnout? Or perhaps you have some recommendations for us to make this exercise even better? We’d love to hear your thoughts. And if you would like us to share this Google spreadsheet with you, we’d be happy to.

Author Rebecca Gilmore

More posts by Rebecca Gilmore

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Ronell Smith says:

    This is why you have to love the MackWeb team. I love how you all share, invite people in to see what’s happening behind the scenes. It’s too easy for any of us to show this romanticized veneer that’s as practiced as it is insincere.

    A voice I hear often in my ear is from an HR consultant hired by ESPN to deliver manager’s training to my department. She said something I’ll never forget: “People don’t leave jobs; they leave bad bosses.”

    I’ve found that to be largely true. Yeah, it’s not universally the case, but the point has merit.

    Most of us, as bosses, are so disconnected and unaware of what’s happening beneath us and all around us that we don’t realize how bad things are until someone leaves or the business begins to lose clients.

    I applaud bosses who show and share a human side, especially when that human side means empowering their employees.

    I already knew Mack was awesome, though 😀

    Well, actually, the WHOLE team is awe-damn-some—but I’m biased.

    RS

    • Rebecca Gilmore says:

      Thanks, Ronell! As always, your words are as encouraging as they are insightful. It’s not always easy to invite others to take a look at us in the trenches, but once they look in, we find that many of them are saying, “me, too!”

      And frankly, we don’t mind your bias at all. 🙂

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