How companies can protect their high performers from burnout

A five-year study in the UK found that the mental health of 20% of the top performing leaders of UK businesses is affected by corporate burnout.

It’s easy to blame burnout on the high performers themselves. After all, the stereotype is that these overachievers say yes to more work even when they’re already at capacity. They routinely put work first, cancelling personal engagements in order to finish the job.

While such habits may be partially to blame, this isn’t the full story. Many companies and leaders engage in three common practices, often unknowingly, that make top performers more likely to burn out:

They put high performers on the hardest projects. The most obvious difference between high performers and their peers is that high performers are put on the hardest projects over and over again. It makes sense that one would want to put the best people on the most important projects. But if you keep going back to the same group of people time and time again, you’ll run the risk of wearing them out.

They use high performers to compensate for weaker team members. High performers are seen as exemplary employees and are expected to support lower performers, while mentor others. In the process often taking on a lot of their work because one feels that is what s/he is supposed to do when others are struggling. While many star performers do enjoy mentoring others, they understandably start to feel resentful if they think the boss is letting poor performers off the hook.

They ask high performers to help on many small efforts unrelated to their work. As a high performer, you have demands as a culture carrier, a mentor, and a resource for others. However, this practice badly affects high-performing team members. They are constantly asked to take on a random array of one-off tasks. For example, ‘You’re good at making slides. Can you make this one slide?’ ‘You’re good at WordPress. Can you add this page?’ But it’s these small things that often lead high performers to feel like they’ve not been able to do anything. While this issue is often framed as a personal problem for people who don’t know how to set boundaries or say no, it’s more fairly an organizational problem where the most hardworking people are ‘rewarded’ with more work.

Now that we have listed the key issues, what can we do to fix this? Managers can start by becoming more aware of how these practices are affecting their organization and by looking to defy them back when possible. Beyond that, employers and leaders should look at three other strategies to help support their high performers:

Let high performers occasionally pick their projects. High performers, generally, are very motivated by work. Yet, they don’t regularly get the option of working on projects they care most about, unless it happens to also be the hardest project available, or unless they agree to do it on top of their normal work. Letting them choose some of their projects reconnects them with the reason they are excited to do their job — something that can get lost in the throes of burnout.

Create high-performing pairs. High performers routinely find themselves separated from those they most closely relate to and enjoy working with. This happens for obvious reasons, but surrounding them with low performers increases their workload, saps their morale, and limits their development. Pairing two high performers of a similar level can help distribute this added weight and improve the high performers’ experience, without leaving some teams with no high performers. It’s important to emphasize here that these pairs should consist of employees at the same or similar levels. Placing a high-performing entry-level employee with a high-performing leader won’t have the same effect. 

Keep track of additional demands on their time. Demands unrelated to core work are unsuspected drivers of burnout because they feel so insignificant and it’s hard to keep track of their aggregate effect. Due to this one may end up spending all their time on work not related to their priorities. One way to avoid this could be by adding a layer of protection with the leaders stepping in and helping the employees stay focused on priorities by telling them not to say yes to anything. However, Employers or leaders don’t always need to be as draconian as this. In many cases, simply keeping track of all their requests in a single place can equip high performers with the awareness to turn down some of the incoming requests.

These three strategies may seem to offer only marginal benefits, but it’s the accumulation of small savings and improvements that reduces the risk of burnout over time. The team at Actuate Business Consulting, a knowledge-based management consulting firm in India, believes that high performers hold great value for any company, delivering 400% more productivity than average performers. Companies will lose much of this value if they don’t take deliberate actions to protect their high performers from burnout by consciously promoting a workplace of empathy and inclusion, and by encouraging employees to build networks that provide emotional support. By employing the strategies mentioned above, and keeping a check on practices that make top performers more likely to burn out, will not only reduce the stress on top performers but will also increasing the overall productivity and output.

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