All organisations want an engaged workforce, with employees who care about what they do. But what happens when employee engagement becomes toxic?
Engaged workers are every leader’s dream. Let’s say you have an employee who genuinely loves what they do. They come in to work early, give tasks their full attention and elevate the performance of those around them.
They never seem to wear out and you can count on them to pick up the slack when others are sick or on leave. But lying dormant below this employee’s zest for work is a huge risk.
We all know that engagement is critical for organisational success, driving outcomes that make for a thriving workforce, including productivity, performance and job satisfaction.
In fact, research published in the Academy of Management Journal found that engagement can even prevent some negative health aspects of workaholism, including high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels.
But when it turns obsessive, engagement can lead to territorialism and ‘passion fatigue’ – meaning your best and brightest could be on the road to burnout.
Industries at risk of passion fatigue
Employees in sectors with high stakeholder investment may be more prone to experiencing burnout, says Jennifer Moss, journalist, international speaker and author of The Burnout Epidemic.
“You see it in people working in non-profit, healthcare and teaching sectors – where it’s life or death for the stakeholder, or you really care about students’ success,” she says.
People who work for a larger cause, for example legal professionals who represent marginalised groups, can also be blinded by their passion, says Dr Darja Kragt, lecturer in the School of Psychological Science at the University of Western Australia.
This extreme engagement means employees sometimes fail to recognise when they’re working too hard or neglecting to take breaks, particularly in healthcare where there is already a legacy of overwork.
Read HRM’s article on what to do when your identity becomes enmeshed with your work.
Professions where there is an individual focus, including sales and accounting, are similarly at risk of over-engagement, says Kenneth Law, Professor Chairman, Department of Management, Chinese University of Hong Kong Business School.
Law identified the dark side of high engagement through the real-life observation of salespeople in research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
In this context, over-engagement led to negative outcomes including territorialism, knowledge hoarding and unethical behaviour such as working with customers outside the organisation due to perceived ownership.
“Many organisations, especially those that are sales-based, put too much emphasis on individual performance without a clear signal that this is the company’s job, not your job,” he says.
While certain industries or work cultures may be more prone to passion fatigue, it’s something that could affect almost anyone. Even HR professionals may be at risk, considering they’re often drawn to the industry with a desire to help people, and there’s never a lack of complex and emotionally charged situations to deal with.
Red flags to look out for
People who care about what they do can often be perfectionists, says Moss. While they can help organisations achieve goals, it becomes concerning when perfectionists live by an all-or-nothing mentality.
“When you’re so identified with your work, if you make any error, that means [you feel like] you’re terrible at your job,” she says.
“People who are highly engaged tend to take on more tasks. Managers can review what they’re working on and potentially relieve some of that workload.” – Dr Darja Kragt, lecturer, University of Western Australia
Neuroticism is another risk factor, manifesting in detail orientation and fixation on goals.
“These people tend to be attracted to roles where it’s about exact figures and exacting targets, which can also lead to burnout.”
Both Law and Moss say introversion is a key personality type at risk of over- engagement, with introverts more likely to define themselves by their work. This has only been compounded by the remote work phenomenon, says Moss.
“At first they were really delighted to have the space, but then it started to make some of them feel more isolated,” she says. “People who are extroverted are able to make friends and connections [more easily], so many don’t feel loneliness or lack of community, which is a root cause of burnout.”
If your top performers are experiencing passion fatigue, you might see them tuning out at work, drinking more coffee than usual, making more mistakes, or losing a bit of their passion, says Moss. They may also be more volatile, withdrawn, combative or irritable, or show up to work looking tired.
It’s crucial to be on the lookout for any behaviours that aren’t typical for these employees, says Moss.
“Perhaps they were really excited about a new project, but now they’re really frustrated, or they’re using fixed-mindset language.
“Leaders need to be aware of the language of hopelessness, such as ‘It’s always like this’ or ‘It’s never going to change.’”
In Law’s experience, when work increasingly becomes part of the individual’s self-concept, it becomes a problem.
“Self-concept is what I consider as part of me. If I extend this to my job, it becomes part of myself,” he says. “For example, if information about my job is being disclosed, that means my self-concept and my privacy is being disclosed.”
Territorial employees might have less social interaction with their colleagues. When they chat with their colleagues, they tend to be secretive about work-related matters, he says.
“During any interaction, they make a very clear-cut boundary between what is job-related and non-job related information.”
Risk factors for HR to keep in mind
Because of their perfectionistic tendencies, employees at risk of passion fatigue usually won’t share their struggles until they reach breaking point.
“They’re the ones who say, ‘I quit. I’m leaving tomorrow,’” says Moss. “Then there’s a massive vacuum of attrition for those people that relied on that high-performer.”
In Law’s experience, over-engagement can lead to poor team performance overall.
If a ‘star performing’ teacher develops excellent teaching practices, for example, if they don’t share knowledge with their colleagues, as is often the case with those who over-identify with their work, it hinders their growth opportunities.
“Even if I have one or two star teachers, if the rest don’t know how to teach effectively, the whole department will suffer,” says Law.
Any intervention or strategy to mitigate passion fatigue should ideally comprise top-down structural and systemic change as well as bottom-up strategies.
Law thinks organisations need to shift focus from the individual by incorporating more group incentives, such as a team-based bonus system, or employee stock ownership plans, which are organisational oriented.
“You want to tie the individual to the performance of the whole group, as well as the whole organisation,” he says.
Building up team culture also ensures everyone looks out for the benefits of the organisation, not just their own.
A good way to do this is by entrusting employees with decisions, says Law.
For example, when some faculty members left his university recently, Law formed a recruitment task force among his staff, with one employee suggesting that because the labour market is so tight, they should delay the selection process to capture higher-quality candidates when things cool down.
“That shows they are committed to the benefit of the organisation, and they are actually trying to solve the problem with me.”
As well as crafting incentives at a team level, managers could also consider setting up more team-based performance tasks to reduce feelings of ownership, says Law.
“For example, even though my colleagues teach courses by themselves, we require all the professors teaching the same or similar courses to form a task force to share teaching materials,” he says.
“They are assessed on the team-based performance as a whole and I can see which course is being taught well.”
Helping employees prioritise tasks can also shift the workload around more equitably, says Kragt.
“People who are highly engaged tend to take on more tasks. Managers can review what they’re working on and potentially relieve some of that workload so they can focus on things that are within their competence and interest,” she says.
“You could say, ‘We really value your contribution because you are very committed and engaged, so we want to create space for you to amplify your impact.’”
The impact of COVID-19
We’ve been in a state of chronic fight or flight for several years, which has spilled into how we react to things.
“We’re responding to everything urgently without asking first if something is necessary or urgent,” says Moss. “We need to get better at recognising what’s urgent and making sure we understand what takes precedence.”
This includes discussing with your boss: What is our priority right now? What are the main things we should be working on? Who is our number one stakeholder?
Establishing an open line of communication by creating active listening systems and ensuring employees know what resources are available to them is crucial, particularly for perfectionists who have difficulty showing vulnerability.
“In our research, we found 67 per cent of people could not talk about their mental health at work,” says Moss. “Of that group, that entire percentage were always or often burned out. So make sure you tell your employees, ‘I’m not a mental health professional, but I’m a mental health conduit. Ask me anything and I can direct you.’”
Moss also suggests leaders broaden their understanding by undergoing mental health first aid training, or training up peers.
Peer support is a great way to get employees trusting each other and therefore spreading the load between them all, reducing the likelihood of passion fatigue taking hold.
“Having a community you can trust outside of work is important, but having support inside your workplace is critical if you’re at risk of burnout.”
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