“Tom” is a high performer at a large healthcare technology company. In addition to his normal workload, he was just offered a long-coveted opportunity: to play a managing role on a project he really cares about. Even with his large workload, as a high performer, Tom knows this role is a good career move. After accepting the role, he starts to feel sick. “I had pneumonia…It was a shocking moment for me. I’m young and healthy, but I realized that if I push myself, I will burn out.”

Corporate burnout affects 20% of top-performing leaders.

This is a familiar story to high performers and those close to them. In fact, a five-year study in the UK recently found that corporate burnout affects 20% of top-performing leaders in terms of mental health.

Why?

Our first instinct when we hear “burnout” is to blame the individual. We’ve all heard rumblings like, “He must have bad boundaries,” or “She just needs to learn how to say no!” There is indeed some truth to these statements.

What we overlook, however, are the broader organizational practices at play. The study found that the following practices are the greatest contributors to burnout amongst high performers:

  •  Putting high performers on the most demanding projects only: We return to the same small group of high performers time and time again for the most challenging projects. When we “fish in the same pond,” we run the risk of wearing our people out.
  • Using high performers to compensate for weaker teammates: While high performers tend to enjoy mentoring and teaching, they can start to feel resentful if they think the boss is letting poor performers off the hook.
  • Asking high performers to assist on small efforts outside of their scope: High performers can feel exploited when they’re pulled on time and time again. Instead of learning new skills, low performers tend to ask their high performing counterparts for help: “You’re so good at Powerpoint, can you make this slide?” Overtime, these small requests require a lot of time and energy.

How to adjust?

The UK study found three actionable takeaways to protect high performers from burnout in the long run:

  • Let them pick their own projects: Since high performers are generally selected first for projects, they rarely get the opportunity to choose what they’re working on. Allowing them periodic autonomy in selecting projects reconnects them to the reason they’re excited about their job, which is a buffer against burnout.
  • Allow high performer partnerships: Because high performers are a minority, they are often split up and sprinkled amongst teams. However, surrounding them with low performers increases their workload and limits professional development. Putting high performers on the hardest projects is one way to urge growth, but research shows that allowing them to learn from high performing peers is most effective in protecting against burnout.
  • Track demands on time: To dos that fall outside a high performer’s core workload – even seemingly small, one-off requests – can add up to burnout over time. For those high performing employees who struggle to say no, managers can offer a safety net along the lines of, “It’s my job to balance the priorities on this team, so feel free to come to me when you get a request. That way, when a request falls outside of our team’s scope, I’m the one saying no!”