high-performance employee burnout

High-Performance Employee Burnout: the Cost and the Cure

Let’s face it – everyone loves a rock star employee. Companies are thrilled to have employees who not only meet, but exceed, deadlines or sales goals or budgets.

As long as there aren’t interpersonal or other management-related issues, employers will usually reward these workers with bonuses or promotions, or at worst, let them run on auto-pilot. But there’s a potential downside with an “ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude toward these workers – the risk of high-performance employee burnout.

To prevent a rock star from becoming a one-hit wonder, it’s imperative that employers try to identify and prevent burnout.

The Risks of High-Performance Employee Burnout

Dollars and sense. From purely a bottom-line perspective, it’s literally worth it to implement policies and programs designed to prevent employee burnout. The costs to the company are multifold; those who are most ambitious and productive may be least likely to take care of themselves.

The result is increased absenteeism due to not getting enough exercise, lack of sleep, or chronic stress – costing companies in both paid time off and reduced productivity.

Feeling the burn(out). One of the most profound costs of a high-performance employee burnout is that employee then leaving. Some of those departures can be directly tracked if the worker says they’re leaving part from feeling overworked. But the indirect causes are harder to track. After all, the stress and fatigue of burnout can be masked by the related impact on personal relationships, mental well-being, physical health, and – somewhat ironically – job performance.

The fine print of fatigue. Ideally, no employer should need to be motivated by legal requirements rather than driven by moral and ethical ones. But, bottom line, there’s litigation exposure for employers, to consider at the very least. Stress and exhaustion due to employer-related policies or expectations can lead to workplace injury claims. In Sweden and Finland, burnout is a recognised medical disorder. And in the UK and Ireland there is legislation that holds companies responsible for conduct at work that is likely to put employee health at risk.

Ways to Prevent High-Performance Employee Burnout

While there is no way to monitor and preemptively manage every individual employee, companies can implement organisation-wide policies and protocols to help reduce burnout.

Hardline on Holiday. Some companies, particularly those in intense industries like financial services, have a strict holiday policy prohibiting use of company email or other communication while on a break. Generally speaking, the idea is to enforce a true respite from work, as studies show that one requires at least three days of continuous lack of contact with colleagues or clients before “vacation brain” sets in and true relaxation ensues. Related, some combine this with a minimum number of days off — three day mini-breaks are fine in concept, but you need to not only get to a holiday mindset, you need to then maintain it. Ideally you should strive for a full two weeks off to really reap the physical and mental benefits.

Keep office hours. While regular, mandatory holiday breaks are a great help on an annual basis, there needs to also be a limit to day-to-day work-related activities. As simple and radical as it is, companies should be more committed to bringing back the workday – one with a (even virtual) start time and finish time. While email and mobiles increase efficiency and flexibility, they also have eroded the definition a workday. And before you say the 9-to-5 day seems impossibly short to return to –brace yourself — because multiple studies have shown that four hours – not eight  — is our true productivity limit.  (Apparently, it was good enough for Darwin and Virgina Woolf.)

Profile Predictions. A UK study found that 20% of top leaders were suffering from corporate burnout. It also identified some of the markers of those who are at highest risk. In addition to being the office overachievers, they tend to be in the first ten years of their careers (therefore usually in their mid-20s to early 30s), may complain of neck or back pain, and – perhaps not surprisingly – be last to realise they are spiraling toward burnout. Companies can take measures to be particularly sensitive to those most at risk. The bottom line is that burnout burns everyone. Life is, as they say, a marathon, not a sprint. Communicate to employees that it isn’t a sign of weakness, or lack of commitment, to hang it up for the day.

Instead, it’s a plan for durability, and long-term productivity. Employers can do a lot simply by making that attitude a part of the corporate culture. Be careful about praising those who burn the midnight oil or send 3 am emails. See your top performers as long-term investments – and when necessary, protect them from themselves.


Robert Kovach is the Director of Leader Success for Cisco’s Leadership and Team Intelligence Practice Area. He has been an advisor to leadership teams of Fortune 500, FTSE 100 and FTSE Global 500 companies on driving business strategy through executive leadership effectiveness and organizational agility. The opinions expressed in this blog are his own and not those of Cisco. Contact him for speaking enquiries.

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