1 in 5 Employees Is Highly Engaged and at Risk of Burnout

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Emma Seppälä and Julia Moeller for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit:  Paul Reid/Getty Images

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Dorothea loved her new workplace and was highly motivated to perform. Her managers were delighted with her high engagement, professionalism, and dedication. She worked long hours to ensure that her staff was properly managed, that her deadlines were met, and that her team’s work was nothing short of outstanding. In the first two months, she single-handedly organized a large conference – marketing and organizing all the details of the conference and filling it to capacity. It was a remarkable feat.

In the last weeks prior to the event, however, her stress levels attained such high levels that she suffered from severe burnout symptoms, which included feeling physically and emotionally exhausted, depressed, and suffering of sleep problems. She was instructed to take time off work. She never attended the conference and needed a long recovery before she reached her earlier performance and wellbeing levels. Her burnout symptoms had resulted from the long-term stress and the depletion of her resources over time.

Engagement means flourishing, or does it?

Employee engagement is a major concern for HR leaders. Year after year, concerned managers and researchers discuss Gallup’s shocking statistic that seven out of 10 U.S. employees report feeling unengaged. Figuring out how to increase employee engagement has been a burning question for companies and consultants across the board.

The many positive outcomes of engagement include greater productivity and quality of work, increased safety, and employee retention. These outcomes are in fact so well established that some researchers like Arnold Bakker, Professor of Work and Organizational Psychology at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, and colleagues have linked engagement to the experience of “flourishing at work.” Similarly, Amy L. Reschly, Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Georgia, and colleagues concluded that student engagement at schools was a sign of “flourishing.”

While engagement certainly has its benefits, most of us will have noticed that, when we are highly engaged in working towards a goal we can also experience something less than positive: high levels of stress. Here’s where things get more nuanced and complicated. 

A recent study conducted by our center at Yale University, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, in collaboration with the Faas Foundation, has cast doubts on the idea of engagement as a purely beneficial experience. This survey examined the levels of engagement and burnout in over 1,000 U.S. employees. For some people, engagement is indeed a purely positive experience; 2 out of 5 employees in our survey reported high engagement and low burnout. These employees also reported high levels of positive outcomes (such as feeling positive emotions and acquiring new skills) and low negative outcomes (such as feeling negative emotions or looking for another job). We’ll call these the optimally engaged group.

However, the data also showed that one out of five employees reported both high engagement and high burnout. We’ll call this group the engaged-exhausted group. These engaged-exhausted workers were passionate about their work, but also had intensely mixed feelings about it — reporting high levels of interest, stress, and frustration. While they showed desirable behaviors such as high skill acquisition, these apparent model employees also reported the highest turnover intentions in our sample — even higher than the unengaged group.

That means that companies may be at risk of losing some of their most motivated and hard-working employees not for a lack of engagement, but because of their simultaneous experiences of high stress and burnout symptoms.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Emma Seppälä, Ph.D., is author of The Happiness Track, Co-Director of the Yale College Emotional Intelligence Project and Faculty Director of the Women’s Leadership Program at the Yale School of Management. She is also Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Follow her on Twitter @emmaseppala or her website www.emmaseppala.com

Julia Moeller, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Leipzig, Germany and consultant for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Julia studies motivation and emotions in schools and workplaces, with a focus on mixed feelings. Follow her on Twitter @passionresearch or her website.

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