Losing your top performers to burnout? Here’s what you need to know

Dr. Jay Spence


written on July 13, 2017

For the same reasons they excel at their jobs, your top performers are susceptible to burnout, and depression. This case study shows how we can better manage it by talking openly about mental health issues in the workplace.

Sienna was never supposed to burnout. At least, that’s what she told herself. She was a high achiever, consistently in the top 5 per cent, and had been noted for her leadership development each year she’d been with the company. So how would she ever be able to tell people that she wasn’t doing well? Failure felt like it was not an option.

What mental illness looks like is different for different people

Something like this is happening in every office right now: top performers are experiencing burnout and profound professional isolation because asking for help means risking their image (and self-image) of being successful and dependable. Unless businesses start to normalise burnout, star employees like Sienna won’t reach out for help until it’s too late, at substantial cost to both employee and employer.

Sienna’s habitually pushed herself; focusing on her goals and ignoring her needs. She noticed her mistakes more than her successes, and listened to the internal voice constantly telling her she wasn’t there yet. Ultimately, she never felt good enough. In a word, she was depressed.

We all have this voice. We cover it up with distractions and, in some cases, unhealthy habits. Sienna, had no idea she was experiencing depression. To her, she just had to try harder because she wasn’t good enough.

The barriers to managing mental health issues in the workplace

You don’t get help unless you think there is a problem. High performers see themselves as problem solvers, not problem makers, and definitely not a ‘problem’ – for them being either of those things is literally unthinkable.  Their mood suffers, as do their relationships – both at work and personally.

Sienna was eventually placed on performance management because of her lateness and mistakes. She began to drink more and HR was looking at letting her go after years of success.

The path forward

Fortunately, there is a happy ending to this story – although you can imagine that at this point many former high achievers would be quietly let go. Sienna managed to recognise she needed help and reached out to a colleague in a different department, someone she’d always respected.

This colleague did something remarkable: he disclosed his own mental health struggles. Suddenly she was standing in front of a man that she had always thought “had it all together” telling her that he’d been through the same thing. The effect was transformational. She suddenly could access the language to describe her experience. She could say she was depressed, but instead of being another source of self-loathing, it was made normal by her colleague.

Starting conversations about mental health

Legitimising mental health struggles is crucial – because depression is something most of us experience at some stage. Many people think of it as a severe condition, where someone is incapacitated. And of course it can be, but you are more likely to experience it as a state of being easily overwhelmed, irritable and lacking motivation for a dark, but limited time.

Here are two things you might want to consider for your business.

Talking about mental health doesn’t need to be hard. The most appropriate response is the same one that you’d give to an employee who’d suffered a serious physical injury. Would you send a card if someone was off sick for a month? Of course. Would you do the same if they were off with depression? The answer should be yes.

Dr Jay Spence is a co-founder of Uprise, a mental health startup that uses technology to improve access to psychological support in the workplace.

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