Corporate Burnout: Do Your Top Performers Do Too Much?
05 July 2018

Wellness - talent management – poor work performance

On one occasion I investigated the alleged gross misconduct of a senior manager, Peter. He had gone from being an exceptionally diligent, high-performing employee to a major problem. During the course of the investigation several people said things like: “it’s completely unlike him. It’s as though a switch had flipped”.

It was clear when I met Peter that there was something seriously wrong. He was yammering away at about twice the speed of normal speech and it made no sense at all. We asked him to attend a medical and when the results came back my fears were confirmed. He had worked so hard that he’d had a breakdown.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an unusual experience for high performing employees: In a study published in 2017 by Dr Howard Awbery researchers found that the mental health of 20% of the top-performing leaders of UK businesses is affected by burnout.

One might argue that high performing individuals don’t always help themselves. In Peter’s case he had been told several times not to over-do things and to cut back on his workload – but he didn’t.

But boundary-setting issues of individuals doesn’t give us the full picture. Many companies do things - often unknowingly - that make it more likely that their top performers will become ill.

  1. High performers are usually given the hardest projects to work on. It’s natural enough to want your best people on the most important projects. But if you keep going to the same small group of people repeatedly, you run the risk of overloading them and causing burnout.
  2. In many business the best performers compensate for weaker team members. This may not be conscious but it has an effect. While many top employees do enjoy supporting and mentoring others, they may well start to feel resentful if they think you’re letting poor performers off the hook.
  3. High performers are often asked to help on many small matters unrelated to their work. While this issue is often described as a personal problem for people who don’t know how to say no, it could equally be seen as an organisational problem where the busiest, most hardworking people are given more work.

If you are to manage the welfare of your best people, you should become more aware of how these practices affect your business. As well as reducing over-reliance on the top performers, you can also take steps to support your top people, as follows.

As a rule, high performers are very motivated by their work, but they don’t often get the option to choose 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. Let them select some of their projects. It will reignite their interest in the role.

Develop high-performing pairs. High performers are usually isolated from those they most closely relate to and enjoy working with. Putting them in a group of 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.

Track the additional demands on their time. Demands unrelated to core work may individually feel so insignificant that it’s hard to appreciate their combined effect. In many cases, simply keeping track of all the requests in a single place can equip high performers with the awareness that they should turn down some of the incoming requests.

Research published in 2012 by Ernest O’Boyle Jnr and Herman Aguinas suggests that high performers deliver 400% more productivity than their average colleagues. If you don’t take deliberate action to protect your high performers you’ll lose that value.

On a final note you really shouldn’t accept poor work performance. Importantly, you don’t have to.

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Although every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this blog, nothing herein should be construed as giving advice and no responsibility will be taken for inaccuracies or errors.

Copyright © 2023 all rights reserved. You may copy or distribute this blog as long as this copyright notice and full information about contacting the author are attached. The author is Kate Russell of Russell HR Consulting Ltd.