While the high-performers in your workplace often carry much of the weight on important projects — as well as the organization’s day-to-day success — they are at high risk of burnout from taking on too much. That outcome is bad for the workers, and bad for the company. A five-year study in the UK determined that the mental health of one out of five top-performing leaders of UK corporations is affected by professional burnout.
It’s easy to blame this predicament on the high performers themselves since we’ve all internalized the stereotype about overachievers saying yes to more work even when they’re completely maxed out. They are the types who always put work first, cancelling or sidelining their own personal engagements to get the job done.
It’s true that these self-sacrificing habits may be partly be to blame; but this isn’t the full story. In the experience of many corporate consultants, many businesses and leaders make a common set of mistakes that out top performers at higher risk of burn out:
They assign high performers to the most difficult 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. There are no ‘softball’ projects,” explains a manager at a leading strategy and management consulting firm. On the surface, that makes sense: obviously we want our best people on the most important projects. But if you keep tapping the same small group of people over and over again, there’s a good chance you’re wearing them out.
They use high performers to compensate for weaker team members. Business experts describe another unique characteristic of the experience of high performers: “You’re seen as an exemplary employee, so you’re expected to support lower performers and mentor others.” One senior manager from a leading technology company recounts her experience on a project where this was true: “I spent a lot of time trying to coach and mentor them and quite honestly taking on a lot of their work because you feel that is what you’re supposed to do when others are struggling.” And although a lot of star performers may enjoy mentoring others, that pleasure can devolve into resent if they think the supervisor is letting poor performers off the hook.
They request high performers’ 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,” Lisa says. Similarly, Karen describes how this practice affects herself and her high-performing team members: “They are constantly being asked to help in small ways. ‘You’re good at making slides. Can you make this one slide?’ ‘You’re good at WordPress. Can you add this page?’ I’m just realizing how much time I’ve spent on all these one-off requests the last few weeks. And that’s why I don’t feel like I’ve gotten anything done.” 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 seen as an organizational problem where the most hardworking people are “rewarded” with more work.
To remedy this, managers should develop awareness of how these practices impact their organizations and then scale them back wherever possible. Beyond that, employers can consider three other strategies to help them support their high performers over the long term:
Give high-performers the option to choose their own projects from time to time. High performers are typically very motivated by their work. But a lot of the time they don’t have the option to work on projects they find the most attractive unless it happens to also be the most difficult project available, or unless they agree to do it in addition to their regular work. Allowing them to pick some of their projects reconnects them with the reason they’re excited to do their job — something that often get lost for those experiencing burnout.
Create high-performing pairs. High performers are often separated from those co-workers they relate with best and enjoy working with. Managers do this for obvious reasons, but it’s important to keep in mind that surrounding high performers with low performers increases their workload, drains morale, and limits development. Pairing two high performers of a similar level can help improve their experience without leaving some teams with no high performers. Moreover, it can make them even better at their work since other high performers will push their abilities and thinking.
It’s important to emphasize that these pairs should consist of employees at the same or a similar level. Placing a high-performing entry-level employee with a high-performing leader won’t have the same effect.
Monitor additional demands on high-performers’ time. Demands unrelated to core work are invisible drivers of burnout because each one feels to minor it’s hard to track their larger, aggregate effect. One high performer named Karen describes a transition she went through as an example of how to address this: “We get a lot of requests into our team, and because we all want to serve others and say yes, we ended up spending all our time on work not related to our priorities. I spent a few months breaking them of that by saying, ‘You don’t have the authority to say yes to anything. You can’t say yes or no. You need to talk to me. It’s my job to balance all priorities.’ And this gives them a layer of protection.”
Employers or leaders don’t always need to be this draconian. Oftentimes, just keeping track of all requests in one place can give high performers the insight 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. 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 action to protect their high performers from burnout.