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When employee engagement becomes burnout

Written 31 July, 2019, 4 minutes to read

In business, engagement is often seen as the gateway to competitive advantage – affecting everything from quality and productivity, to retention and brand desirability. But there is a ceiling to its success. Rather than sustaining a motivated workforce of happy employees, it can be the means to their undoing. Here’s how employee engagement becomes burnout, and what you can do to stay on the right side of it.

Can you be “too engaged” at work?

While the benefits of employee engagement have been long established, little has been said about its darker potential, as a risk factor for burnout. Many companies still believe “the more engaged the better”, but while increased engagement can offer higher productivity, quality of work and employee retention, there is definitely such a thing as too much engagement.

Burnout often strikes employees when they’ve exhausted emotional or physical strength, usually – but not always – as a result of prolonged stress periods. And while engagement is often a positive force, it can unknowingly contribute to such stress.

Engagement can lead to an unhealthy view of your own work, where you feel like you’ve never done enough to fulfil your duties. It can create an unsustainable level of contact with work, creating an “always on” approach which makes it impossible to have requisite healthy rest. According to one study, more than 50% of US employees feel like they have to check their email after 11pm to keep up with work, but this kind of “highly engaged” behaviour is exactly what we need to be aware of in order to prevent ourselves from burning out.

Who’s most at risk?

Engagement-related burnout can affect anyone at any age or in any industry, but studies show ‘purpose-driven’ work breeds high-risk burnout environments. Mission-focused executives, managers and self-employed consultants are among those at greatest risk.

Long working hours are often embedded into SME culture, too: research by AXA PPP healthcare has revealed that 67% of small-to-medium business employees experience work-related stress or anxiety, with nearly half (47%) of workers continuing to work when they feel unwell.

Yet 82% of SME leaders said they do not currently have any form of wellness support in place for their workforce, and just 15% of people who work in smaller businesses said they believe their company provides a culture that supports their mental health.

Learn to recognize signs of burnout

Being aware of potential issues and symptoms, as well as taking on preventative measures will help prevent engagement from becoming burnout. You may not always realize you’re dealing with burnout – many people often consider the stress they experience at work to be “normal”. It’s important to note, though, that “stress” is commonly associated with a sense of urgency and anxiety, whereas “burnout” is linked to emotions like hopelessness, helplessness or indifference.

To assess your level of burnout risk, ask yourself:

• Do you identify so strongly with work that your work life and personal life are blurred? • Do you continually have a high workload, including recurrent overtime? • Do you try to ‘be everything to everyone’? • Do you feel like you’re losing control of your work without support?

The responsibility of employers

Employers also have a huge responsibility in helping employees stay on the right side of work engagement. That starts with recognizing that tenacity and drive in a team is not an unconditionally positive thing – it needs to be managed, understood and kept in context. But you also need to:

Provide clear expectations

…and ensure people understand them! All workers, regardless of age, seniority or industry, want to know what's expected of them in the workplace. A lack of clear expectations causes anxiety and confusion – meaning employees can overcompensate where they think their expectations haven’t been met.

Monitor employee engagement

Weekly task distribution, time spent on different activities and daily logged hours provide a useful context for pinpointing “unhealthy” levels of engagement. Use an automatic time tracking tool to capture and display all this information for you, so you can proactively manage these burnout risks.

Enforce sustainable work practices

Overtime combined with outside work commitments, like family obligations, can lead to faster burnout. Actively work against a “must stay late” culture in your office, to ensure people don’t fall into overtime against their will. Make sure everyone is clear on your company’s overtime policy, and that all terms are laid out in employment contracts. And actually track it to make sure people aren’t working serial overtime!

Encourage social support in your teams

The least burned-out employees are often the ones who feel like they have control at work as well as a good emotional support system. Help build a feedback culture, offer direct one-to-one support to anyone who needs it, and encourage empathy in teams to ensure people share workload responsibility and look out for each others’ mental health.

Ensure employees take the vacation they’re entitled to

Vacation time is a key component of employee wellness. When people get time away, they come back recharged and ready to tackle their tasks with renewed energy. Whether you’re feeling burned out or not, it’s important to unplug during your vacation to truly rest.

To stay on the right side of burnout, mindfulness is key. Whether that means taking time off to spend with family, or approaching your boss for clarifications on work requirements – being aware of when engagement creeps over to burnout territory is vital for staying productive, healthy and happy.

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Work burnout happens to the best of us and it isn’t just down to working too much. While stress and long hours do add up, work burnout is often the sum of more subtle factors. Keep these serial causes of work burnout – and their cures – in mind to protect you and your team from its worst effects.