Could Your Most Highly Engaged Employees Be About to Walk Out The Door?

For years, we’ve been told that to delivering great results is a by-product of great cultures, and in turn, highly engaged employees. We know the spiel. High engagement equals high performance, and as I am sure you would chime in, high retention of employees.

So, reading an article recently, evaluating the opposite, caught me by surprise.

In ‘1 of 5 Highly Engaged Employees is as Risk of Burnout’, Seppala and Moeller explain that in a recent study done by the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence, in collaboration with the Faas Foundation, they found that, in certain cases, high engagement correlated with high burnout. In their experiment, 1 in 5 highly engaged employees reported both of these feelings. And, even more critically, this same group also reported the highest turnover (leaving) intentions, even higher that the data from the ‘unengaged’ group, who you would naturally expect to have greater intentions to move to a new role.

What does this say, and what should we do about it?

Recognise highly engaged employees often feel the highest level of stress

When you’re engaged, and performing at your best, you’re probably working your hardest. This group of individuals reported feeling passionate about their work, but also had high levels of stress and frustration, and symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, etc. In practice, it may be easy to overlook this as a leader. For example, if you have a high performer that seems to always work long hours, you may assume this is just their working style. However, they could be depleting valuable resources in a fashion that even they do not recognise themselves – until burnout strikes.

Understanding individuals and unique dynamics is key to retention

It should be made clear that the study also showed highly engaged employees that did not report the same symptoms, meaning that the two are not always directly linked. For you, as a finance leader, maximising engagement, performance and retention will always be about understanding the individual’s unique requirements and situation. As suggested by Seppala and Moeller, taking a more nuanced approach to promoting engagement while avoiding burnout is needed. Factors such as providing a high level of resources, supervisor support, low levels of bureaucracy, and constant check ins around demand and workload can make a significant difference.

Realistically challenging vs overly stretching goals

Individuals respond differently to stretch goals – but in the context of employees at risk of burnout, it may be worth evaluating your stance on aggressive goal-setting. Employees who perform often get saddled with more, unintentionally and accumulatively, so assessing this in an objective and measured way is a valuable exercise. Watch your own work habits, like emailing after hours – in order to set boundaries that don’t lesson someone’s ambition, but set the right tone and values.

The takeaway here is by no means that high engagement is bad. Engagement in most cases is overwhelmingly positive – however there will always be a subsection of passionate employees at risk of burnout that you need to watch out for. Being aware of this interesting dynamic, and not being complacent, is key to ensuring you continue to deliver high performance, year after year.

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