Don’t take your most engaged employees for granted. There’s a good chance they could burn


  • Even engaged workers can become exhausted by their jobs — especially during the pandemic.
  • In some cases that exhaustion can lead to burnout, and eventually to those employees quitting.
  • Employers should ensure that top performers have the resources necessary to manage job demands.

Whenever Jacinta Jiménez meets with a company’s leadership, she advises them to focus their retention efforts on one group of people in particular: their most highly engaged employees.

It might seem as though these are the folks who are the least likely to quit; they like their work, they’re committed to the organization, and they’re typically high performers.

But Jiménez, a psychologist, speaker, and author of “The Burnout Fix,” told Insider that “when we love what we do and we’re very excited about the work and we’re passionate, we can sometimes be so wrapped up in it that we neglect to take care of ourselves or set boundaries.” As a result, Jiménez said, engaged employees can wind up exhausted or even burned out, which can lead them to quit their jobs altogether.

It’s a problem that employers should pay special attention to right now. In a survey of 649 employed US workers in June, 95% said they were considering leaving their jobs; a third of these respondents cited burnout as the reason. Many companies have tried to tackle this problem with health and wellness programming. But Paula Davis, a burnout consultant, told Insider that they should instead give employees the resources they need to manage otherwise untenable workloads, like backup support on weekends and the freedom to raise questions and concerns as they come up.

Employers need to realize that their staffers are “running at a pace that really quite honestly is unsustainable,” said Davis, who is the founder of the Stress & Resilience Institute and the author of “Beating Burnout at Work.”

Loving your job won’t save you

A growing body of research explores the link between high engagement and burnout, which the World Health Organization defines as “workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The three components of burnout, according to the WHO, are exhaustion, cynicism, and diminished performance.

A 2018 study from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Yale Child Study Center found that nearly one in five workers showed signs of high engagement and burnout. The career-coaching platform BetterUp has put that figure closer to one in three. And the Yale study found that engaged and burned-out workers expressed the highest intention of quitting among the employees surveyed.

Julia Moeller, the study’s lead author, and Emma Seppälä, a Stanford psychologist, sounded the alarm in the Harvard Business Review in 2018. “Companies may be at risk of losing some of their most motivated and hard-working employees not for a lack of engagement, but because of their simultaneous experiences of high stress and burnout symptoms,” they said.

Some research suggests this tension between engagement and exhaustion is especially common among healthcare workers and teachers. Jiménez called it “compassion fatigue.”

Gail Miller, a special-education teacher in Kentucky with 22 years of experience, told Axios in November that “it’s sad because I love what I do, but I hate all the extra stuff that we’re having to do,” like maintaining COVID-19 protocols in the classroom. Miller said that she was exhausted and that she was practically counting down the days until she can retire. And The Washington Post reported that Lorna Breen, an emergency-department physician, died by suicide in April 2020 shortly after coauthoring a journal article on high rates of burnout among emergency-department clinicians.

Managing heavy workloads

Managers also need to make sure they’re not exploiting employees’ enthusiasm about their work, said Christina Maslach, a professor emerita of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, who pioneered research on burnout. Maslach added that sometimes people who are highly engaged “can get taken advantage of” — they’re such high performers that managers wind up giving them more to do than they can realistically handle.

Being highly engaged doesn’t directly cause you to feel exhausted or burn out, and while exhaustion is not synonymous with burnout, it is a component of burnout. This specific type of burnout tends to happen when the highly engaged employee is managing a lot of demands without the appropriate resources from their employer. Davis said resources could include things like regular feedback, flexibility, autonomy, and the opportunity to grow as a professional.

Jiménez said she was hopeful that changing workplace dynamics would yield opportunities for employers to rethink the way work is structured. “A new world of work necessitates new ways to approach work,” she said. “COVID shined a really bright spotlight on the need for companies to help their employees build out mindset skills and behaviors that allow them to sustain their success in this complex world.”


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