Engaged to Death

Brandon Young, Ph.D., Insights Consultant & Organizational PsychologistEmployee EngagementLeave a Comment

While we evangelize the long established and numerous benefits of employee engagement, there is a dark side to engagement – burnout. Initially, researchers believed engagement and burnout were opposite sides of the same pancake; however, there is strong evidence that burnout and engagement are related but distinct forms of well-being (e.g., Shaufeli, Taris, & Rhenen, 2008). Although there are consistent findings of positive relationships between employee engagement and work outcomes, high engagement can result in exhaustion and health issues. In fact, a recent study found that nearly 1 in 5 employees were highly engaged but were experiencing exhaustion. These employees were generally highly skilled and had strong turnover intentions. In its most extreme form, the engaged but exhausted can experience workaholism, mental and physical health issues, and, at its worst, karoshi (sudden death due to overwork). So how does employee engagement become burnout?

First, let’s define burnout. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distancing from one’s job, or feelings of negativity or cynicism related to one’s job; and 3) reduced feelings of professional competency. Engagement is unhealthy when employees feel like they never do enough to fulfill their duties. These employees often love what they do (or want to), and therefore feel they should do more of it. They often check email at all hours and rarely (if ever) take a day off. Even when they do take a day off, they check email and other organizational communication channels. This “always on” mindset may be especially prevalent with younger generations.

Some work cultures, especially those that are mission- or purpose-driven, can be very intense and may be at more risk of burnout. Employees at mission-driven organizations such as start-ups, non-profits, schools, and healthcare facilities may be among the most at risk. Many who work in a mission-driven organization are susceptible to two of the six factors of burnout risk cited by the Mayo Clinic: 1) “you identify so strongly with work that you lack balance between your work life and professional life” and 2) “you work in a helping profession.” Further, many leaders either explicitly or through behavior convey that long hours without breaks or time off are the only way to get ahead and show commitment. Consequently, many organizations offer “unlimited vacations,” but employees do not take advantage and wear that fact as a badge of honor. As a result, others feel pressured to take on higher workloads and more hours and often feel they are expected to come to work despite physical or mental illness.

While engagement can lead to negative outcomes for some, it is still a worthwhile pursuit. So, what can employers do to ensure engagement doesn’t result in exhaustion and burnout? In high demand work environments, ensure employees have resources to buffer against the negative effects. Resources include managerial support and recognition, flexible work arrangements, social support from team members, autonomy, and input into decision making. It is also important to dissuade behaviors associated with the “always on” mindset by modeling boundary setting and work-life balance. Leaders must understand their culture and its unspoken rules around work hours and time off. Is it an unspoken rule that no one leaves the office before 6:00 p.m. or you need to respond to emails at all hours of the day or while on vacation? Employers must encourage disconnecting from work by “unplugging from devices” and taking time off and/or breaks. Physical rest and cognitive breaks allow employees to be more effective and productive in the long run. Leaders must also set clear policies against bullying or pressuring employees to work longer hours or take on higher workloads for extended periods.

One of the real dangers of burnout is it can lead to afflictions such as anxiety, insomnia, and depression. As such, it is imperative to stop treating mental health concerns as taboo and address them proactively through work cultures that support employee mental health. While I like free draft beer and ping-pong as much as the next person, hip offices are not the solution to burnout and mental health issues. In fact, they can often create environments where people spend more time at work and make it harder for employees to disconnect and get the downtime they need. In addition to employee assistance programs, employers should consider open and honest conversation and offer educational programs to increase employee understanding and reduce stigmas around mental health. Such intervention can normalize experiences and make it easier for employees to ask for help and feel comfortable reaching out to provide support to others who are struggling.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of leadership to keep tabs on employee well-being. Leaders should monitor withdrawal behavior such as absenteeism, tardiness, and turnover, and survey employees to understand engagement and turnover intentions to identify if burnout is isolated or a broader organizational issue. Linking objective employee data to engagement survey data can help identify which workplace practices may be driving burnout or turnover intentions. It may also be worthwhile to isolate data from the “engaged and exhausted” to see if there are different factors contributing to their intentions to leave. Finally, engagement surveys can help uncover and address the “unspoken rules” that are present in your culture.

What best practices have you seen or implemented to prevent burnout?