Are high performers more at risk of burnout?

When it comes to burnout, one of the most common myths is that if you suffer from burnout, you’re either mentally weak, can’t handle stress, or a poor performer.

The research shows unequivocally that this is not the case.

In fact, it could be your most passionate and highest-performing employees who are most at risk of burnout. Burnout has even been described as ‘overachiever syndrome’.

When I released Beyond Burnout in 2020, the book referenced a five-year study that had wrapped up in 2017 in the UK. This research found that the mental health of 20% of the top-performing leaders of British businesses was affected by corporate burnout.

Further research suggests that high engagement can also bring about high stress. Adam Grant has since backed this up, calling for organisations to pinpoint the root causes of overload and design more manageable jobs, as opposed to simply piling on more perks – if they want to keep their people, that is.

A couple of things are usually happening when high-performers burn out. On the one hand, there are the tendencies of high performers themselves. Perhaps even more telling though is an organisation’s response to, and treatment of, those high performers.

I explore both in Beyond Burnout – How to Spot it, Stop it and Stamp it Outexcerpt below…

An article in the Harvard Business Review, pointed to the common stereotype that high performers can struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance. As Ryan O’Reilly, a high-performance coach, author and international speaker on performance and resilience said in an article for Silicon Republic, “high performers are more at risk of burnout because of their drive to do an excellent job all the time. Their personalities don’t tend to lend themselves to do a half job on anything. This, coupled with the inability of the high performer to say ‘no’, and adding more work onto their ever-increasing workloads, is why they are more likely to burn out. High performers are usually the ones who put in more hours and cancel personal engagements for work.”

But it’s important not to put the blame squarely on the habits of high performers when it comes to the potential of burnout. Alongside these tendencies, let’s take a look at the organisational response to high performers. Unsurprisingly, high performers are often the ones assigned the most challenging projects. Not only that, but the breaks between these projects tend to be short, if they have one at all. Because they’re deemed a top performer, others are constantly asking them for help. The expectations on high performers around mentoring others are also higher.

Next, consider overwork (a main cause of burnout) and the high performer. Who do leaders tend to give the new projects, high priority tasks and the most important work they need to get done to? Yep. You guessed it: the most competent amongst the team. The adage, “if you want something done, give it to the busiest person” applies here. I would add, “…and the most high performing”.

So what can we do about it? I’d like to see organisations kick that nefarious mental model to the curb when it comes to burnout and high performers. 

Let’s instead tackle the systemic issues that cause burnout.

Be aware of the signs of burnout and look for instances or patterns in your team. Bring mental wellness conversations into your one-on-ones, and involve your people in the ‘what’, the ‘how’ and, most definitely, the ‘why’ of their work. Keep your team aware of what projects are in the pipeline and actively ask yourself and others what you could ditch or delay.

We need to be aware of whether our organisations celebrate a culture of overwork and ensure we use quality of work, as opposed to quantity to signify superior performance. From there, we can look at how treat high performers and preventing piling it all on them. If you have done some work on identifying strengths within your team, you can be more strategic about delegating certain tasks to certain people – either offering someone an opportunity to play to a strength, or to develop one they are working on.

All of our team members – and especially our top performers – should have supports in place to help them manage their work in healthy ways.

It’s almost always the external conditions that lead to burnout, not individual factors. 

1 Comment

  1. Dennis Vogel on November 25, 2023 at 10:15 am

    Suzi,
    Though I focus on B2C marketing, some insights fit B2B.
    Do workers have high-quality equipment & insightful knowledge to maximize those products?
    High-performers have internal & external expectations. Do workers consciously/subconsciously think previous successes indicate success is inevitable? When tasks are usually assigned to people who have consistently succeeded, do supervisors assume high-performers created success because of OR in spite of provided equipment & information?
    In effect, high-performers might push stuck vehicles without checking mechanical issues like flat tires?
    Supervisors & family members should work with empathetic suppliers/retailers to provide optimal resources instead of thinking talent & persistence is enough.
    Thank you for your book excerpt & article.
    Dennis S. Vogel

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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