Unfortunately Daniel’s worse nightmare comes to life. “We had a really important conference call I had spent a lot of time preparing for. The call went well, but when I finished the call, I realised I was feeling really sick,” says Daniel. “It got worse after that. I went to the doctor later that day, and he told me I had pneumonia. I ended up in the ER the next morning and couldn’t work for the full next week. It was a shocking moment for me. I’m young and healthy, but I realised that if I push myself, I will burn out.”
But what exactly happened to Daniel?
In reality this is quite usual with high performers. It’s easy to blame burnout on the high performers themselves. After all, the stereotype is that these overachievers say yes to more work even when they’re already at capacity. They routinely put work first, canceling personal engagements to finish the job. While such habits may be partially to blame, this isn’t the full story.
Like a coin, this too has 2 sides to it. Many companies and leaders engage in three common practices, often unknowingly, that make top performers even more likely to wear out.
- High performers are always on the hardest projects.
Let’s face it, the most obvious difference between high performers and their peers is that high performers are put on the hardest projects over and over again. And this 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 over and over again, you are definitely running the risk of wearing them out.
So what can be done?
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 wear out.
- High performers to compensate for weaker team members.
When you are seen as an exemplary employee, you are expected to support lower performers and mentor others. Most often they spend a lot of time trying to coach and mentor them and quite honestly taking on a lot of their work because you feel that is what you are supposed to do when others are struggling. 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.
Hence why not create High performing pairs?
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. Pairing two high performers of a similar level can help distribute this added weight and improve high performers’ experience without leaving some teams with no high performers.
- 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. They are constantly being asked to help in small ways. “You’re good at making slides. Can you make this one slide?”, “You’re good at WordPress. Can you add this page?” If you actually think for a moment you realise how much time is spent on all these one-off requests. And that’s why one feels like they have got nothing done. 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 fairly seen as an organisational problem where the most hardworking people are ‘rewarded’ with more work.
The only solution…
Keep track of additional demands on their time. Demands unrelated to core work are unsuspected drivers of burnout because they each feel so insignificant and it’s hard to keep track of their aggregate effect.
Managers can simply can make a decision and take the upper hand by saying, ‘You don’t have the authority to say yes to anything. You can’t say yes or no. You need to talk to me. It’s my job to balance all priorities.’ This does not create authoritarianism but whereas gives them a layer of protection. In many cases, simply keeping track of all the requests in a single place can equip high performers with the awareness to turn down some of the incoming requests.