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Ensure a Positive Candidate Experience When Hiring Contingent Talent Remotely

As digitization, coupled with the global pandemic, propels contingent hiring online and with more individuals relying on employer reviewer sites to evaluate businesses, delivering a positive[...]

March 10, 2021

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Here's Why Your Best Workers Might Be at Risk for Employee Burnout

Employee engagement is a hot topic among HR teams. It’s a subject that often graces the headlines of staffing news sites and HR initiatives. Everyone knows that higher engagement leads to higher productivity, so it’s no wonder that employers spend thousands of dollars each year attempting to improve their engagement rates. But here’s something that might surprise you: high engagement isn’t always a good thing.

How the Heck Can Engagement Be a Bad Thing?

Many a team leader looks at engagement as the holy grail of the HR world. If employees are into their jobs, they’ll be less likely to quit. Engaged employees are faster, more productive, and happier, right? Not necessarily. A recent study by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Faas Foundation found that for some employees, high engagement can lead to burnout.

The study looked at engagement rates for more than 1,000 U.S. employees. It found what one would expect: some employees (2 out of 5) reported high engagement and few signs of burnout. But it also found something a bit shocking: 1 out of 5 employees reported high engagement and high burnout. This group, while achieving positive results like high levels of interest and skill acquisition, also had the highest rate of intended turnover out of all the groups.

These findings are troublesome, especially for companies who sink their resources into generalized engagement initiatives with no target areas in mind. Employers who fail to notice the often-elusive signs of employee burnout could be at risk of losing their best workers. The problem is compounded when we realize that the symptoms of employee burnout are even more difficult to spot in engaged employees. It’s not easy to tell if an employee is overwhelmed when they’re consistently killin’ it on the job. The hallmark symptoms, like disengagement and absenteeism, are not applicable here.

How to Prevent Burnout in Highly-Engaged Employees

According to the study, access to support resources, while important, did not have as big of an impact as the workload itself:

“Half of the optimally engaged employees reported having high resources, such as supervisor support, rewards and recognition, and self-efficacy at work, but low demands such as low workload, low cumbersome bureaucracy, and low to moderate demands on concentration and attention. In contrast, such experiences of high resources and low demands were rare (4%) among the engaged-exhausted employees, the majority of whom (64%) reported experiencing high demands and high resources.”

This indicates that highly engaged employees still experience burnout despite having access to engagement resources. The solution isn’t to haphazardly increase these efforts as workload demands increase: the solution is to target resources to coincide with changing workloads. Consider the following:

  • Groups with high resources and low demands could most benefit from engagement initiatives that promote skills development and offer new challenges. These groups are perfect candidates for fostering engagement through increased responsibilities.
  • Those rare groups with low resources and high demands have an urgent need for supervisor support, coaching, and recognition before they become disengaged.
  • Employers should focus on decreasing unnecessary demands on groups that are already engaged and have access to resources. For example, if an employee takes on new responsibilities that require more concentration, employers should ensure that the bureaucratic tasks are delegated, perhaps to the groups with low demands.

Targeting Resources That Offset Employee Burnout

Achieving a balanced workload is easier said than done. Often, the most engaged employees are over-achievers who have a proclivity for taking on too much work. They’re highly-productive, and therefore management tends to place higher expectations on them. They may not speak up when they’re feeling overloaded and will instead push themselves to the edge. By the time they’re burnt out, it’s too late to save them – and they quit.

Kissmetrics published an in-depth article on the symptoms and causes of burnout. They define it as an “individual’s response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors – It doesn’t simply result from working too many hours in a high-demand environment. Rather, it is a multidimensional response with many complex causes.” Following this logic, it only makes sense that efforts to reduce the risk of burnout must be targeted. Engaged employees don’t need to become more engaged; they need more options for recovery:

  • Emotional support is critical for employees with hefty workloads. Because these employees are highly self-sufficient, supervisors are often tempted to let them function on their own. However, in many cases, this is the exact opposite of what they need, especially before a deadline or when taking on a new project.
  • Acknowledgment is important across the board, of course, but even more so for employees who consistently achieve their goals. Top performers should and must be rewarded with financial and social awards commensurate with their accomplishments.
  • Wellness programs with options for work-stressor recovery can help alleviate the physical and psychological symptoms of burnout. This could include massages, mindfulness training, relaxation sessions, and paid mental health days.
  • Delegation, as I mentioned before, is an effective way to level out employee workloads. The effects are two-fold: allowing other employees to participate in decisions reduces the risk of burnout for the overburdened employee and increases engagement for employees that can take on more work.
  • Remember that knowledge is power. If employees understand the causes and symptoms of burnout, they’ll be more apt to look out for each other’s wellbeing. In fact, co-workers can be extremely helpful in recognizing and addressing employee burnout before it gets to the point of no return.

Don’t Lose Your Best Employees

For many of us, work is a part of our identities. It gives us a sense of purpose. Naturally, we want to perform well at our jobs. Whenever we’re given a new challenge or responsibility, we approach it with all the momentum of a freight train barreling down the tracks. We invest time and mental resources into our projects and feel rewarded when we complete them. It seems like sustaining a sense of enjoyment from work should be a straightforward formula: take on a new task, complete it, and reap the rewards. But we are human - nothing is ever that easy. A passion for work, as desirable as it may seem, can be harmful if it creates an imbalance.

Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for preventing burnout. Employee engagement is not a panacea - just because an employee is highly-engaged does not mean they’re impervious to the effects of being overworked. Preventing burnout and increasing engagement should be treated as separate initiatives with separate target groups. The bottom line is that employees need a healthy work/life balance, especially those who are too invested in their jobs to ask for it. As an employer, it’s up to you to ensure your hardest-working employees are not overburdened or isolated because of their capabilities.

Scott Giroux
Scott Giroux
A long-time innovator with extensive leadership experience, Scott served on the executive team of a leading North American staffing firm prior to joining our team. At Crowdstaffing, Scott leads the company’s global operations and account management team and also drives growth of the talent supplier side of Crowdstaffing’s hiring marketplace. "There is so much untapped potential in our industry I’m thrilled to be part of a movement that is pioneering a connected marketplace for everyone in the hiring ecosystem."
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