5 Ways to Manage High Performer Burnout

Burnout is something most of us have heard about or experienced ourselves. It frequently occurs because employees feel overworked and underappreciated. Fortunately, these are things that can be addressed by HR and the organization as a whole.

That’s especially important when it comes to high performer burnout. Not only are high performers more likely to experience burnout, but they are also the most costly to replace should they decide to leave your organization for a new job.

Managing high performer burnout starts with knowing exactly what it is. Then you have to know how to identify it and know what you can do to prevent it among your best performers.

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What Is Burnout?

Burnout makes it nearly impossible for employees to function because they have reached a state of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. Employees who experience burnout find it difficult to do things that they once found meaningful and important.

Although any employee can experience burnout, high performer burnout is more common. Typical employees report feeling burned out at a rate of 49%, while 53% of high performers report feeling burned out.

Your star employees are more likely to experience burnout because they work hard day in and day out. If you’re not listening to their needs, they’re more likely to feel mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted by their role.

Why Do High Performers Burnout?

High performers get burned out because they are more engaged in their work. Because they’re more engaged, top performers get more work, and the quality of the work they do is high. It can be difficult to maintain that level of performance without the right support in place.

It’s only a matter of time until your highest achieving performers feel burned out, quit, or leave your organization unless you know the signs of burnout to look out for.

Four Signs Your High Performers Are About to Burnout

To reverse feelings of burnout, you need to be able to recognize the signs of high performer burnout among your best employees.

Signs include:

  • They disengage
  • They seem exhausted
  • They can’t quit
  • Their emotions are all over the place

They disengage 

burned out employees aren’t engaged with their work. The contrast between an engaged and disengaged high performer can be especially stark. When once they used to participate enthusiastically in collaborative projects, submit projects ahead of the deadline, and spearhead new projects, now they don’t.

Instead, they do the bare minimum, the quality of their work could be better compared to before, and they are no longer interested in actively participating in collaborative projects and meetings.

They seem exhausted

Feelings of burnout come with mental and emotional exhaustion, but burnout also comes with physical exhaustion. An employee who used to enter the building with a smile suddenly seems extra tired and no longer says hi to everyone on their way in. You may notice they drink an extra cup of coffee in the afternoon, or you sometimes catch them gazing out the window with their eyes glazed over while they’re at their desk.

They can’t quit 

Many high performers fight feelings of burnout because they want to be engaged with their work. They often put in extra hours, but the quality of those hours is poor. For example, they may have always been the first one in and the last one out, and they still are, but their work doesn’t reflect the extra hours they’re putting in.

Their emotions are all over the place 

burned out employees have a harder time controlling their emotions, and they are often more sensitive to things going on in the office. They might lash out at another employee for something seemingly unimportant, like moving their lunch in the fridge. Or, they might seem on the verge of tears when they are under pressure.

What Is the Cost of High Performer Burnout?

The cost of overloading top performers is high. Disengaged employees cost their employers an average of 34% of their annual salary.

Not only are you losing their productivity, but you're also paying more in healthcare costs, as burnout employees go to the doctor or therapist more often. Employee-sponsored healthcare has continued to rise, increasing 9.7% between 2019 and 2021.

If your highly skilled employee feels burned out enough that they get another job, it can cost you even more. Replacing a top-performing employee can cost you two times their annual salary.

How Can I Prevent High Performer Burnout?

Managing burnout after employees are already experiencing symptoms is difficult. It’s much easier to prevent symptoms of burnout in the first place by:

  • Stress work-life balance
  • Set clear boundaries
  • Prioritize tasks
  • Collect continuous feedback

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Stress work-life balance

Work-life balance can be different for different people, and it’s something that can change over time according to what’s happening in your employees’ personal lives. It’s important to offer different perks, and then encourage your employees to use them.

A few ideas include:

  • Offer flexible start and end times
  • Give employees the option to work from home at least some of the time
  • Offer a shorter schedule around holidays
  • Give plenty of sick and vacation time, and encourage your employees to take it

Set clear boundaries

Help employees create clear boundaries around their work. For example, create an email policy that encourages employees to avoid checking their email after hours or on weekends. Give employees the option to say no to work that would overload them, encourage breaks throughout the day, and set an expectation for everyone to leave on time.

Make sure you model holding these boundaries too. When you do, employees will feel like they can follow in your footsteps without repercussions.

Prioritize tasks

Create a culture of realistic expectations by helping employees prioritize important tasks. Have conversations about what type of work is urgent and what can be done tomorrow instead.

When employees and management are on the same page about what needs to get done, and management is realistic about what can wait, employees won’t feel pressured to put in extra hours to get it all done.

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Collect continuous feedback 

Employees who feel like they are being heard are less likely to burn out, so make sure you collect their feedback often.

You might create a schedule of one-on-ones to see how employees are feeling and if they would recommend any changes to processes or their workload. You can also provide employees with an engagement survey to discover commonalities and patterns among employee attitudes, opinions, and performance.

How to Manage High Performer Burnout

Employees can still get burned out, even if you have an eye on prevention. It’s important to know how to manage burnout so you can better support employees.

A few ways HR and management can step in to manage high performer burnout include:

  • Check in with employees
  • Redistribute their workload
  • Help prioritize
  • Encourage time off

Check in with employees 

Catching burnout can be nearly impossible unless you check in with employees. Create a system of check-ins using a performance management platform like PerformYard where managers, HR, and employees openly talk about burnout so symptoms can be addressed.

The GROW coaching model can be also be used during these check-ins to structure productive and supportive conversations.

Don’t wait until the next check-in if you suspect an employee is experiencing symptoms of burnout. Schedule a quick time to talk so symptoms can be addressed right away. The quicker you catch it, the easier it is to fix it.

Redistribute their workload 

Chances are, your high performing employees take on a little more than the typical employee, but that extra work can leave them feeling burned out. If other employees are qualified to take on a few tasks so you can more fairly balance the workload, then do it.

Make sure you have an open dialog throughout the process. That way employees feel comfortable admitting that they have too much on their plate, and they don’t think they’re in trouble when you start redistributing their work to other people.

Help employees prioritize their work

High performers typically have lofty goals and standards, but it’s those lofty goals and standards that can leave them feeling burned out.

Encourage your burned out employee to create two to-do lists each day. One is for critical tasks that need to be done. The second is for tasks that would be nice to achieve, but don’t have to be completed that day.

Then, work together to make those two lists so they can see which tasks management considers urgent and which ones can wait. Check in at the end of the day or the end of the week to talk about how they did. Celebrate wins and reassure them that whatever was left undone can be done tomorrow.

Encourage time off

Just because employees have time off doesn’t mean they take it. Many high performers have plenty of vacation and sick days that they have never used. That’s because they are driven to achieve, but it may also be because they don’t feel like they can take time off.

Encourage them to take their time when they need it, and then help them distribute their workload to others so they actually can. When they know management staff and HR are supportive of taking time off, they’re more likely to take it when they need to.

High Performer Burnout Is a Cost You Can’t Ignore

The top performer curse is a real thing, with high performing employees feeling more burned out than their coworkers. Fortunately, there is plenty that HR can do to prevent and address high performer burnout.

By setting clear expectations, creating an open dialog about symptoms, and implementing a performance management system, you can encourage employees to show up as their best, most productive selves each day.

Modernize your performance management process to reduce employee burnout.Learn More

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