High Employee Engagement Can Lead To Burnout

Most managers and human resources professionals are trying their best to get as much engagement from their employees as possible. Higher engagement leads to better performance and higher retention. So far, so good.

Unfortunately, higher engagement bordering on obsessive passion can also lead to quite a bit of stress and eventually to burnout. Pushing for a highly engaged workforce without caring for their well-being may lead to problems. You can see it in organizational cultures where people are so hyped up that they regularly go above and beyond, live only for their work, and don’t take care of their psychological and physical health. They wake up one day, discovering they can’t go like this anymore. Total engagement very quickly transforms into complete disengagement. They have burned out.

Engagement and flourishing

There is a considerable difference between engagement and flourishing. A study done at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence found out there are people who experience both high engagement and high burnout at the same time. In fact, 18.8% of workers involved in the study fit this category. They saw both positive and negative impacts but ultimately intended to quit their jobs. They were engaged and passionate about their work. However, they also had mixed feelings about it, with high levels of stress and frustration. You can be highly engaged but still don’t flourish.

The researchers tried to identify the disconnect and why some employees get into this high engagement high exhaustion trap. The answer lies in the resources available to them. Half of the optimally engaged employees mentioned they have enough resources, such as the support of their manager, fair rewards and recognition, and self-efficacy at work. They also noted low demands such as low workload, low bureaucracy, and less demand for attention.

This was in stark contrast with the engaged yet burned out people. Only 4% of them reported such high resources and low demands circumstances. 64% of them reported high demands and high resources.

Sarah S. Brom and colleagues performed a study of occupational health and perceived fit of the employee abilities and workplace demands.

They concluded that there is a direct correlation between six areas of work-life and the well-being of the employees. These areas are workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values. The workload and values showed to be the most critical areas of work-life when it comes to burnout.

The same is also being noted by Michael P. Leiter and Christina Maslach, who originally came up with these six areas and showed the impact they have on burnout. They described how an imbalance in these areas could lead to emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and professional efficacy. These are the three consequences of burnout in the workplace.

How do you measure burnout?

There have been various conceptual models of how burnout develops and what its impact is.

The Job Demands-Resources model focuses on the idea that burnout happens when individuals experience job demands and have inadequate resources to address them.

The Conservation of Resources model is based on the motivational theory assuming that burnout occurs as a result of a persistent threat to available resources.

The one that is being used by Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter is the Areas of Worklife model. It focuses on job-person fit or mismatch in the six areas mentioned above. Mismatches in these areas lead to burnout that manifests in exhaustion, cynicism, and low efficacy. This leads to low quality of work, absenteeism, low satisfaction with work and life, and health issues.

The work on Areas of Worklife led to the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), originally developed by Christina Maslach and the team and now considered one of the leading measures of burnout. It addresses three general areas. Emotional exhaustion measures feelings of being emotionally overextended by work. Depersonalization measures an unfeeling and impersonal response toward recipients of the work. Personal accomplishment measures perceptions of competence and successful achievement of work.

How to prevent burnout?

It is all about a mismatch between the individual and the job environment. For example, the job may be too difficult for the person to handle. Or the person can handle it but is not being rewarded according to the effort.

When dealing with burnout or preventing it in the first place, you need to deal with both. You should help the person in terms of self-understanding, coping skills, relaxation strategies, social support, and changes in work patterns. In short, make them more resilient.

However, in the first place, you need to fix the job in terms of the six areas described above. Manageable workload provides opportunities to use and develop skills, as well as allows for rest and recovery. Control allows employees to influence decisions that affect their work, to have autonomy and access to the necessary resources. Reward that is aligned with a person’s job and contribution. Community or relationships with other people on the job that are trusting, where social support exists, and where people work out their differences effectively. Fairness in terms of fair and equitable decisions and policies. Values are the ideals that attract people to the job in the first place. A gap between personal and organizational values leads to trade-offs between the work people want and the one they have, which contributes to burnout.

Putting it all together

If you are a manager and want to combat the burnout fatigue of your teams, then keep going for engagement but be smart about it. When you increase what you demand of your employees, you need to increase the resources you provide and allow for adequate recovery time. Ultimately you want to go for more than just engagement. You want your people to flourish.


What are your thoughts on the topic? Have you experienced situations where engagement led to burnout? How do you ensure that your key, most engaged employees don’t end up depressed and burned out?

Photo: geralt / Pixabay.com

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Categories: Career, Life

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