By Paul Votto, National Director of Housing Programs
Several years ago, when I was the COO of a property management company, I had occasion to be walking one of the more “challenged” properties in the company’s portfolio with the site manager and her boss, our vice president of property management. I had only been with the company for a year or so but during that time Sarah (not her real name) had impressed me with her competence and dedication. She had been the site manager of this particular property for a few years, and while some progress had been made, it was simply a tough property. I knew that, even with our best efforts, it was a property that would only perform so well.
On this particular day, we were doing the usual walkaround, looking at problems and discussing possible solutions. My mind started to focus on Sarah and how frustrated she seemed to be with the property. I then made a rookie mistake. I turned to her boss and said out loud what I was thinking: “I think Sarah is burned out.” Sarah immediately burst into tears. As you can imagine, I was pretty embarrassed and did my best to explain myself. I had meant my comment as both a compliment to her commitment and a challenge to her boss and me to do something before we lost one of our best team members. It took a while, but Sarah came to understand that my insensitive remark wasn't meant to be a criticism of her. If anything, I was upset that upper management had let it get to this point. Ultimately, we transferred Sarah to an easier (though not the easiest) property. Sarah still had challenges to conquer at her new assignment but she quickly got reinvigorated and once again began enjoying her job. The last time I checked, Sarah was still with the company and was an important member of the management team.
I’ll never forget that day with Sarah. It made me realize that burnout among managers isn’t something to take lightly. It affects real people in very human ways. In my experience, the tougher the property, the more likely a manager will experience burnout. It’s not a guarantee (thankfully) that one will lead to the other, but the likelihood of burnout increases as the stress of the job and the persistence of that stress increases. And it is a phenomenon that occurs in many settings, including senior housing.
Solutions? There are many. One strategy larger companies should consider is following the military model of periodic rotation; that is, moving managers around occasionally. There are several advantages to this approach beyond helping to avoid managerial burnout. It puts a new set of eyes on a property and, often, a new or different set of skills.
In cases where rotation isn’t an option, senior management needs to check in with managers occasionally to see how they are doing. Burnout should be something discussed openly. Site managers should know they have a receptive ear in upper management. Peer-to-peer interactions also can be of great help. That can come in many forms, from loosely structured staff get-togethers to encouraging managers to join local industry groups or other activities that provide a mental break. And, of course, managers themselves need to take responsibility and not let the job overwhelm them.
Like many things in my life, some of my best insights have come from my mistakes. I’m sorry the incident with Sarah happened but, then again, I’m not.