Tips to Avoid Burnout Among Your Stars

Every successful organization has star players — employees with an innate, burning desire to always do their best and to inspire their co-workers to improve their performances. Unfortunately, too many companies take a shortsighted approach by squeezing their top performers for everything they’re worth. Instead of stoking the inner fires of these employees to always perform at peak level, they burn them out prematurely.

Failing to notice or address workers’ concerns when they are overwhelmed can have an adverse impact on the organization. Even the best performers have finite capacity for managing multiple projects well, so when a new request is made, something has to give. Often, this results in missed deadlines and reduced quality. In addition to being detrimental to the organization, these instances of underperformance are extremely frustrating for top talent. As morale of star players slips and burnout sets in, so does an organization’s ability to retain them.

Here are some guidelines on how to spot signs of burnout and some best practices for managers on how to strike a balance and maintain equilibrium.

Early Warning Signs of Star Employee Burnout
They tell you they’re burning out. It may sound flippant, but this is a legitimate, proactive signal that organizations too often don’t take seriously. The belief may be that he or she will get over it or is just going through a rough patch, but organizations that bury their head in the sand won’t resolve this issue.

They back off from challenges. When under stress, even the best and brightest tend to revert to actions and tasks where success is assured. Backing away from new challenges and focusing on “busy work” should signal that something is out of balance with a star player’s workload and needs to be addressed.

A change in demeanor or performance. Stress also has a way of showing up in one’s physical, emotional and professional well-being. If star performers lose their cool more quickly than usual, experience notable weight gain or loss or begin to underperform to their normally very high standards, an organization is likely dealing with people who are overburdened and overstressed.

Best Practices for Managing Top Talent
The magic of delegation. Effective delegation is key to allowing top employees the chance to confidently unplug from work and take time to recharge their batteries. If star employees aren’t equipped with strong delegation skills, they may feel like they have to take on every project, and burnout will occur more quickly. Using the analogy of a decision tree is an easy, effective way to set guidelines for delegating. Someone can be delegated a responsibility at four different levels: root, trunk, branch and leaf. Each level has a clear definition of what’s expected and sets guidelines on how to interact with co-workers and managers. For example, a leaf decision doesn’t require any report on the action, but a root decision calls for input from many people. A strong delegation model can help star employees feel confident that tasks can be efficiently and effectively delegated to teammates.

Help managers and stars think about projects in terms of buckets. Assigning equal weight and importance to every assignment is illogical. Star performers intuitively understand that some tasks are going to be more important than others. Jeff DeMordaunt, vice president of talent management at Ardent Health, enables employees to use the three-bucket approach to assign priorities to various tasks: 1. Must do 2. Should do, and 3. Nice to do. Managers and top talent collaborate to assign new projects to individual buckets, assessing the trade-offs associated with various priorities.

Avoid Customizing Jobs to Suit Top Talent. Be cautious about fashioning jobs to individuals. DeMordaunt warns that such exceptions lead to silos of personal power, which are debilitating to organizations. “Personal power can lead to indispensability — which will handcuff an organization’s adaptability over time,” DeMordaunt said. “High-powered performers are the way to go — just ensure their skill set is in alignment with where the company is going.” By avoid such power silos, organizations avoid relying on top talent for unique specialties that only they can provide.

Halley Bock is the president and CEO of Fierce Inc., a leadership development and training company. She can be reached at