Burnout: Employee Engagement's Evil Twin

Identify the warning signs before healthy engagement turns unhealthy.

Employee Engagement

It's the kind of insight that is so obviously true, it's become conventional wisdom: highly engaged employees are better, happier, higher performing employees. An endless parade of studies put data behind this intuition. Engaged employees are 17% more productive. Highly engaged workplaces have 70% fewer safety incidents. And engaged employees feel better about their home lives, too.

So over the last decade or so, employers have focused attention and resources on boosting employee engagement. They've measured it. They've designed for it. They've made it one of their major priorities. And everyone lived happily ever after... right?

Not so fast. It turns out that, like ice cream, engagement is one of those good things you can definitely have too much of. And if you don't catch engagement before it turns unhealthy, its evil twin will strike your most engaged workers: burnout.

Employee engagement or employee burnout: where's the line?

First, let's be clear: burnout goes beyond just being tired, or even exhausted, at work. The World Health Organization defines burnout as the result of "chronic workplace stress" that produces feelings of mental distance, negativity, and cynicism about one's job. True burnout reduces motivation, productivity, and employee retention. Oh, and it feels pretty miserable, too.

Experts: time for "a major overhaul"

The foregrounding of employee engagement has become such a burnout risk that Tony Schwartz, the management guru who popularized it with the bestselling book The Power of Full Engagement, now says the very concept "needs a major overhaul."

"The elephant in offices all around the world is that people are running on empty," Schwartz writes in a New York Times piece, "When Employee Engagement Turns Into Employee Burnout". "Too often (engagement) refers to employees who get to work early, stay late and remain connected at night and on weekends. That’s a recipe for burnout, not enduring high performance."

So how can managers spot the warning signs in their teams? How can HR help prevent burnout before it makes the business's most motivated employees too miserable to recover? Here are the key differences to watch out for between healthy engagement that supports mental health, and unhealthy engagement that destroys it.

Unclear expectations

Nature abhors a vacuum. In the absence of clear guidelines about what exactly is expected of them, many well-intentioned employees regularly fill that space by working harder, just to be on the safe side. After all, nobody ever got fired for working too much, right?

That's why it's incumbent on leaders to state in the clearest possible terms what exactly is expected of employees—and to restate it as often as necessary for employees to get the message. Crucially, this applies not only to work output, but also to how much time they spend not working.

Don't just tell staff they're "allowed" to set reasonable working hours. That leaves room for a perceptional race to the bottom, where nobody wants to be the only one clocking out at 5 PM. Make downtime a positive requirement. Provide employees with the clearest possible communication about what matters both for the worker's wellness and greater productivity, and assures employees they won't be informally penalized for maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

Blurred lines between work lives and personal lives

It's a good thing when people find meaning in their work—and it's an essential human need. A 2022 Harvard Business Review study found that 90% of employees surveyed believed that work should bring a sense of purpose to their life. If your employees feel that sense of meaning, that's something to celebrate.

The problems start when the workplace is the primary, or only, source of a person's identity. The inevitable difficulties at work feel like existential threats. Workers can neglect the other aspects of themselves, and lose touch with the different activities outside the office that bring richness, variety, and rejuvenation to their lives.

While most employees are embracing the new flexibility of the virtual workplace, this greying of boundaries has indeed become more of a risk to employee wellness since the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of remote work. 56% of employees surveyed said they have more difficulty "switching off" while working from home.

Again, the way forward for leaders is to make it clear to entire teams that switching off is expected, encouraged, even required. If your company culture rewards presenteeism, conspicuous hustling, and a work-first-everything-else-last mentality, even informally, it's your responsibility to change it.

Inputs are more important than outcomes

People respond to incentives. If your company's KPIs are skewed toward hours worked, contacts made, or other volume-based input metrics, that's what your staff will optimize for—at the expense of not only their own well-being, but even the far more crucial outcomes that your business really needs to thrive.

First and foremost, that rules out intrusive, superficial software that monitors basic activity like keystrokes and mouse usage. They don't tell you what you really need to know to measure productivity and give constructive employee feedback, and they destroy trust along the way.

Also, letting go of a fixation on long hours gives everyone an incentive to get their work done efficiently. Do you really want to incentivize people to stretch their workload out just to look busy for 60 hours a week when they could get it all done in 35?

An emphasis on outcomes relieves the employee of stress over essentially meaningless metrics, and confusion over how to spend their time. It sets them free to focus their efforts on what really matters to the company's success: their work.


Uncontrolled and unmonitored workloads

Traditionally, workload management has been seen as an operations or resourcing problem. Now we understand that it's vital to the employee experience, too. And that means it's vital to the health of your entire team.

It's not only essential that you know who is doing what and how much, it's easier than ever. Today's virtual workplace tools give managers far deeper insight into work engagement than ever before. By combining that people work data with AI and machine learning, you can anticipate who is in danger of employee burnout before they start struggling.

No time to recover

Busy times are inevitable in any thriving business. Some positions inherently demand a lot of the people who hold them. Stress is a factor in every workplace.

The question is, do these employees also have time to recover? If you shrug and assume that the natural ebb and flow of work will leave room for recovery, you're running a serious burnout risk. Recovery time should be built into your workflow at every scale, from breaks between meetings throughout every day to vacation time after finishing big projects.

Make clear to your teams that recovery time is not just a nice thing to do, it's absolutely essential to preventing job burnout. Even James Bond was ordered to take leave after every mission. The world won't fall apart if your employees do the same.

Work never feels "done"

Even in the most relentless work environment, people need moments when they can look back and feel like they've accomplished something. More importantly, they need to feel like there are times when it's OK to leave their responsibilities and tasks for a while. Otherwise, they'll be prey for feelings of frustration that "work never ends" and doubt that their hard work has been worth it.

If your business model has these moments built in, make sure your workflow builds in some space around them, as discussed in the point about recovery time above. If there are no natural break points and downtimes in your industry, make some up. Get creative about how to communicate to employees that they've accomplished something meaningful, and support them in switching off.

Employee engagement and burnout: enthusiasm or dread?

By the time your most enthusiastic, highly engaged employees start dreading coming to work instead, it may be too late. But by watching out for these warning signs and offering empathy and support, leaders can head off employee burnout and have a positive impact on their staff's mental health. Employee engagement should be a force for good. It's up to leaders to make sure it is.

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