Too Much of a Good Thing? Mitigating the Risk of Burnout in Highly Engaged Workplaces
Employee engagement has long been a core measure for how well a company is doing to create an enjoyable and high-performing organizational culture.
Engaged workplace cultures have also generally been shown to lower the likelihood of new incidents of depression and anxiety, but engagement alone does not always give us a full picture of how employees are feeling about work and life on a daily basis.
Recent Gallup polling has even suggested that a significant number of highly engaged employees experience challenges and stress associated with burnout, workload management, and overall work-life balance. A culture that puts greater emphasis on employee well-being can more effectively account for the quality of employees’ lives both in and out of work. Improving employee engagement is certainly a good thing, but in order for engaged employees to thrive, they need to feel hopeful about their future with the companies they work for and feel good about their financial well-being, the work they do, and, generally speaking, who they do it with or for.
The Costs of Poor Worker Well-Being and Burnout
According to the World Health Organization, symptoms of burnout can be multifaceted. Burnout and overwhelming work stress can lead to feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, reduced productivity while on the job, and increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativity toward one’s career. These experiences and feelings are costly for both individuals and organizations. Gallup surveys found that engaged employees at work who report that they are struggling or suffering when it comes to the intersection of work and life are 61% more likely to experience burnout and 48% more likely to experience daily stress. The costs associated with poor employee well-being can be dire. Approximately 15-20% of involuntary turnover is due to burnout, and there is an additional $2 million in lost opportunity cost for every 1,000 workers.
Putting Employee Well-Being First
Thankfully, there are meaningful actions that organizations and leaders can take toward reducing these risks, all of which are far less costly than losing your best employees or team members. The first step is for leadership to talk about well-being in meetings or regular check-ins and make it a priority for the company’s overall culture strategy. The benefits of leaders acting as stewards in this regard cannot be overstated. Hearing your managers or bosses say that the well-being of their employees or team matters more than results at the end of the day can go a long way in terms of setting the tone for an organization. Leaders might even consider opening up with their teams about their own work-related struggles over the course of their career in an effort to create an environment that normalizes having these conversations with colleagues or supervisors. It is not always obvious to others when a person is struggling at work. Creating a more psychologically safe environment or asking team members in one-on-one meetings to talk about some of their challenges and struggles on the job can provide more regular opportunities to address potential risks or workflow problems that lead to exhaustion, errors, or frustrations with one’s job.
A common adage on social media in recent years is that “doing good work is often rewarded with more work.” Burnout can also be the result of high engagement in an organization being exploited, although this does not always happen intentionally. Some managers might view this as greater opportunity for highly engaged and high performing employees. A practical solution for managers is to pay attention to their expectations of highly engaged employees. Leaders and managers can be intentional about setting boundaries when it comes to work-life balance, such as restricting phone calls or emails to work hours, being cognizant of the pressures put on individuals in their free time or while on vacation, or limiting the number of overtime hours employees are expected to work. Managers should be encouraged to pay attention and identify when an employee may be excessively engaged with or overwhelmed by their workload. This is an important function for managers to ensure that they or their teams avoid assigning these employees too many additional tasks and extra role assignments.
A 2019 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health raised the question, “Can Engagement Go Awry and Lead to Burnout?” The study suggests that workplace climates that produce more competition internally among team members can lead to increased burnout out among the most engaged employees. However, there is a perceived mitigating effect on burnout among highly engaged employees when the work climate engenders collaboration, collective development, and mastery on teams. These “mastery climates” can be achieved through task variation, skill development, learning, supportive supervision, and emphasis on team effort and cooperation. These cultures also avoid knowledge and responsibility silos to the extent they can and encourage rest and time off for family or important and often rejuvenating leisure activity. Being a good manager is a lot like being a good coach. Great coaches rely on their top performers often, but they make it part of their job to know when that player needs to take a game off if they intend to finish the season and win a championship with their team.