1 in 5 Highly Engaged Employees Is at Risk of Burnout

Figuring out how to increase employee engagement has been a burning question for companies and consultants across the board. The many positive outcomes of engagement include greater productivity and quality of work, increased safety and employee retention. But while having an engaged workforce certainly has its benefits, most of us will have noticed that, when we are highly engaged in working toward a goal we can also experience something less than positive: high levels of stress. Here’s where things get more nuanced and complicated.

A recent study conducted by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence in collaboration with the Faas Foundation has cast doubts on the idea of engagement as a purely beneficial experience. This survey examined the levels of engagement and burnout in over 1,000 U.S. employees.

For some of the people we examined, engagement was indeed a purely positive experience; 2 out of 5 employees in our survey reported high engagement and low burnout. We’ll call these the optimally engaged group. However, the data also showed that 1 out of 5 employees reported both high engagement and high burnout. We’ll call this group the engaged-exhausted group.

While engaged-exhausted workers showed desirable behaviors such as high skill acquisition, they also reported the highest turnover intentions in our sample — even higher than the unengaged group. That means that companies may be at risk of losing some of their most motivated and hardworking employees not for a lack of engagement, but because of their simultaneous experiences of high stress and burnout symptoms.

To avoid that, we really need to start taking a more nuanced approach and ask how to promote engagement while avoiding burning out employees in the process. It is crucial to provide employees with the resources they need to do their job well, feel good about their work and recover from stressors experienced through work. Human resources should work with managers to monitor the level of demands they’re placing on people, as well as the balance between demands and resources. The higher the work demands, the higher employees’ need for support, acknowledgement or opportunities for recovery.

Managers and HR can help employees by dialing down the demands they’re placing on people — ensuring that employee goals are realistic and rebalancing the workloads of employees who have been saddled with too much. They can also try to increase the resources available to employees; this includes not only material resources such as time and money, but intangible resources such as empathy and friendship in the workplace.

The data is clear: Engagement is key, and it’s what we should strive for as leaders and employees. But what we want is smart engagement — the kind that leads to enthusiasm, motivation and productivity, without the burnout.

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