In this moment of historic turnover, hanging onto star workers is a critical — and increasingly improbable — task.
This far into a pandemic that, after a rush of optimism in the spring, has returned to not having an end in sight, most of us have felt some degree of burnout. And, pandemic times or not, we know high performers can be especially susceptible to burnout, for a number of reasons. From being routinely put on the hardest projects to assumptions when things get busy that star performers will “handle it,” their well-being at work is often underprotected. And that has an impact. One survey of over 15,000 leaders done earlier this year found that 86% of high-potential employees are currently at risk of burnout.
As a leader who oversees star talent, it’s crucial you take the need to ward off burnout seriously. Below, executives and career coaches shared with us their strategies for ensuring a star worker doesn’t flame out.
1. Do more than “encourage” your star workers to take time off.
Knowing high performers can find it difficult to put work down and take time for themselves, it’s important that you be an “explicit and outward proponent of time off,” Jameson Rodgers, Co-founder of CBDfx, said.
“Specifically with companies that offer unlimited PTO, the majority of the hardest workers underutilize vacation time,” Rodgers said. “As such, leaders should implement ‘vacation floors.’ Simply put, it is mandatory for individuals to take a set amount of days off per quarter. This will encourage down time and also enable team members to gain a fresh perspective on life priorities.”
2. Create opportunities for continued learning.
To keep star workers engaged and happy at work, find out what will help them feel challenged, advised Lucas Travis, founder of Inboard Skate.
“When star performers feel that no one could exceed them, it makes them complacent in what they do. When this happens, the excitement fades, and they gradually lose the hype of performing excellently,” Travis said. “This is why one of the best ways I’m able to keep star performers from burning out is by challenging them to become better everyday. Don’t set a limit to the knowledge they can earn while they are on your team. Burnout usually happens to people who just get exhausted with their daily routines, thinking there’s nothing more to expect from it.”
3. Model vulnerability through transparent mental health conversations.
For Heather Harrington, Chief Digital Officer of OneShare Health, building a question about burnout into her weekly status meetings has kept the conversation ongoing and frank.
“We ask each member of the team for their burnout level from zero to 10, and we want honesty,” Harrington said. “It is absolutely OK to be burned out, and my team knows that when one of us is down, we all need to come together to help take the load off. This one simple, tracked question can really open your eyes to who may need more attention and who is more available to take on projects.”
Encouraging mental health breaks and providing free behavioral health counseling to employees are other tools Harrington uses.
“Particularly in the healthcare industry, emotionally, you can find yourself drained at just the sadness and pain that you see,” she added. “It is important to discuss these emotions openly.
If a member of my team is reaching that limit, I will have them log-off or change their task direction… and I will personally jump in to assist them in their tasks.”
4. Facilitate team bonding and socialization.
Star workers are sometimes prone to becoming isolated “Ivory Towers” who are disconnected from their teams. Combat this with opportunities for team bonding and a culture of support and collaboration, Timothy Robinson, CEO of InVPN, said.
“Social lunches and breaks with coworkers should not only be encouraged but also viewed as healthy by management,” Robinson said. “If managers observe their top performers withdrawing from peers or social activities, it’s a warning that they need to check in to make sure they aren’t becoming discouraged or burned out.”
5. Reward people for going the extra mile.
With high expectations in place for high performers, leaders don’t always remember to praise them for their contributions. And yet praise — in addition to competitive pay and perks — can go a long way toward preventing burnout, Jeanine Duval, co-founder at Edelwyn, said.
“As a manager, it’s easy to forget that your top performers can feel self-conscious or overwhelmed with the work they are doing. If they are doing a good job, it is never a bad idea to let them know!” she said. “Sometimes hearing a ‘good job’ is all an employee needs to finish that final report or send that last email. Positive reinforcement is key, and just because someone is performing consistently well doesn’t mean they don’t need it.”
6. Be mindful about the amount of work you’re assigning.
Overachieving employees often struggle with saying “no” at work, leading them to take on more work than is reasonable — something that “may work for awhile but is unsustainable in the long run,” Robert Johansson, CEO of Imgkits, said.
“Managers must be mindful of the amount of work they assign, and they must always be on the lookout for signals that staff are overworked and losing productivity,” he said. “Regular employee check-ins, as well as formal goal and progress tracking, can greatly assist managers in determining whether or not their stars are dimming. It’s necessary to push outstanding employees, but there’s a delicate line between pushing and deflating, so companies should be cautious.”
7. Talk regularly about star workers’ career goals.
A desire not to “settle” is often one of the qualities that helps make for a star worker. And it also lends itself to discontent if a career dead end is sensed, Steve Scott, CTO at Spreadsheet Planet, said.
“They want customized employment options that will grow with them and provide them with goals to aim for,” Scott explained. “It will be easier to keep top workers motivated and engaged if you provide a clear route for growth and development within the company. Talk to them about their goals and work with them to develop strategies for achieving them. If you only provide a ceiling for your talented staff, they will start looking for a way out.”
Helping star talent identify their purpose — rather than focusing on passions alone — is likewise smart, according to JP Gaston, co-founder of The Biz Dojo.
“Top-performing employees are driven by a purpose, and all too often we confuse ‘passion’ with ‘purpose,’” Gaston said. “Finding and defining one’s purpose can be difficult and take some thought but is worth every second of the effort. Work together with your team member to understand why they are driven by the things that spark them.”
8. Let them pick their projects.
Allow for star workers’ autonomy whenever possible, including with what they’re working on, advised Daniel Foley, CMO at Scooter Guide.
“High performers frequently are very motivated by the work, yet they don’t always get the option to do the projects they consider most interesting unless it happens to also be the toughest project available, or unless they accept doing it on top of their regular work,” Foley said. “Letting them pick some of their projects reconnects them with the purpose they are inspired to do — something that can get forgotten in the throes of burnout.”
9. Protect their time.
Use time management tools to understand where, exactly, high performers’ time is going and what lesser-value tasks you can free them from, Herbert Riggs, CEO of UnscrambleX, said.
“Employees may find it difficult to do anything if they have to deal with inefficient processes, bureaucratic red tape and other day-to-day complications,” Riggs said. “When the greatest, highest-level employees discover they can’t get anything done, despite putting in a lot of effort, they become frustrated and ‘burned out.’ Make sure your staff has everything they need to succeed, as well as adequate business procedures and processes in place to ensure they aren’t wasting time on non-productive administrative tasks.”
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