Three ways to protect high performers from burnout

I’ve experienced burnout several times in my career. It’s only through education and perspective that has allowed me to recognise them as such.

You see, through the first couple of decades of my career I’d always been recognised as high potential or high performer. Burnout wasn’t even a “thing”back then. I was leading teams pretty young in my career and running business units before I knew it. I loved it, I felt like I was realising my potential and working hard for that next step up.

Then one day my life got a lot more complicated. I had a child.

Well ok, not me, but my Wife. And suddenly I had a lot more to contend with.

Suddenly I had all this extra weight on my shoulders and still an expectation to perform at work.

And perform I did.

Until one day I couldn’t breathe. I had a temperature, I felt sick and dizzy.

The Doctor I said I had Pleurisy. Sounds like a Medieval Plague doesn’t it?

It’s a real thing. An infection of the tissue between lung and chest cavity. Hurts like hell to breathe.

It took me completely out of the business and knocked me off my pace for several months afterwards, forcing me to take things easy until I was recovered.

And then back to top gear, and so the cycle repeated several times until I realised that maybe I was pushing too hard.

Whose fault is high performer burnout?

My story isn’t unique. A  five-year study in the UK found that the mental health of 20% of the top-performing leaders of UK businesses is affected by corporate burnout.

It’s easy to blame burnout on the high performers themselves. After all, the stereotype is that  overachievers say yes to more work even when they’re already at capacity. They routinely put work first, cancelling personal engagements to finish the job.

While such habits may be partially to blame, this isn’t the full story. In my experience, many companies and leaders engage in three common practices, often unknowingly, that make top performers even more likely to burn out:

They put high performers on the hardest projects

The most obvious difference between high performers and their peers is that high performers are put on the hardest projects over and over again.

There are no easy projects. It makes sense: Of course you’d want your best people on the most important projects.

But if you keep going back to the same small group of people time and time again, you’ll run the risk of wearing them out.

They use high performers to compensate for weaker team members

You’re seen as an exemplary employee, so you’re expected to support lower performers and mentor others.

Businesses often use the high performance to “paper over the cracks” of underperformers, rather than deal with them.

While many star performers do enjoy mentoring others, they understandably start to feel resentful if they think the boss is letting poor performers off the hook.

They ask high performers to help on many small efforts unrelated to their work.

As a high performer, you have demands as a culture carrier, a mentor, and a resource for others. The company asks you to “go above and beyond” on other tasks, maybe taking over another department as a cost-saving activity.

While this issue is often framed as a personal problem for people who don’t know how to set boundaries or say no, it’s more likely an organisational problem where the most hardworking people are “rewarded” with more work.

What can businesses do to prevent high-performer burnout?

To fix this, managers can start by becoming more aware of how these practices are affecting their organisations and looking to scale them back when possible.

Beyond that, employers and leaders should look to three other strategies to help them support their high performers for the long term:

Let high performers occasionally pick their projects.

High performers generally are very motivated by the work. Yet, they don’t regularly get the option to do the projects they care most about unless it happens to also be the hardest project available, or unless they agree to do it on top of their normal work.

Letting them choose some of their projects reconnects them with the reason they are excited to do their job — something that can get lost in the throes of burnout.

Coach them in Resilience

This isn’t mental toughness, quite the opposite in fact, it’s helping them to realise that they aren’t invincible and to be mindful of their wellbeing, mental health and the signals that they are “running on empty”.

Not to use these as excuses, but to use their finite resources to achieve maximum effect.

Engage them in peer groups

High performers routinely find themselves separated from those they most closely relate to and enjoy working with.

This happens for obvious reasons, but surrounding them with low performers increases their workload, saps their morale, and limits their development.

These three strategies may seem to offer only marginal benefits, but it’s the accumulation of small savings and improvements that reduces the risk of burnout over time.

High performers hold great value for any company, delivering 400% more productivity than average performers. Companies will lose much of this value if they don’t take deliberate action to protect their high performers from burnout.

#mentalhealth #stress #resilience #burnout

Further Reading

Personnel Today (2017). Corporate burnout affecting the mental health of 20 percent of top performers in UK businesses.

Silicon Republic (2017). Beware of burnout: How high performers are more at risk.

Emma Seppaala (2014). Connectedness and Health: The Science of Social Connection.

JS House, KR Landis, D Umberson (1988). Social relationships and health.


Experienced business leader, mentor and coach, with fascinations for technology, psychology and ancient philosophies. A self-confessed techno hippy with a unique talent for bringing the best out in people.

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