Ultra-motivated, but exhausted workers are more common than you think—here’s what to do about it

See All Posts

A hand rising from a pile of papers

The problem of burnout in the workplace is increasingly recognized as a public health crisis. But there’s a group of at-risk workers hiding in plain sight. Instead of receiving appropriate support to prevent burnout, these workers are rewarded with more and more work. And to make matters worse (from a burnout standpoint), they keep overdelivering and asking for more—which could be compromising their health.

The scale of the problem

This unique combination of psychological states is referred to by researchers as “engaged-exhausted.” And many workers fit the description. In fact, researchers at Yale found that they represent up to 20% of employees.

BetterUp’s own data suggests that this estimate may be understated. Based on aggregated data from a sample of over 5,000 employees, we found that 31% of employees felt both motivated to do their best and burned out by their work. 

How to tell if you are engaged-exhausted

Are you finding yourself nodding as you read this, wondering if you or a close colleague may fit the criteria? Given that 1 in 5 workers could be classified as engaged-exhausted, chances are high that if you aren’t one, you work alongside one. The descriptors below, in combination, are hallmarks of the engaged-exhausted worker:

  • Highly motivated to do one’s best at work 
  • Frequently praised or recognized for giving more effort and intensity than one’s colleagues
  • Obsessing about work to the level where it detracts from other aspects of life
  • Defending against feelings of exhaustion and burnout to the level of feeling that one’s work situation is not sustainable
  • Struggling with the desire to give more and more of oneself to work, along with the reality of having less and less to give

As you can see from these descriptors, the engaged-exhausted worker is seemingly paradoxical, with one’s foot pressed firmly on the gas, as their engine is running low. No single criteria on its own defines this breed of worker—it’s actually the combination of seemingly opposing forces.

The solution: 3 steps in the right direction

Organizations are making great strides to become aware of and address the problem of burnout. But for the 1 in 5 workers who are engaged-exhausted, there’s little awareness. Rather than sketch out an A-Z strategy for solving this challenge, here are three initial steps that Learning & Development (L&D) and HR leaders can take in the right direction.

  1. Stop hyper-focusing on engagement

    Because engagement is often held as a proxy for wellbeing, there can be a genuine lack of awareness of the presence of engaged-exhausted employees within an organization. It’s not that companies don’t care about the wellbeing of their employees, it’s that their approach to measurement, and the complexity of this category of employee, may obscure the problem. If a company is seeing high engagement across the board, and not simultaneously assessing wellbeing and burnout, the engaged-exhausted worker can go undetected. 

    One option is to use an Employee Experience Index to gauge how your employees are doing overall. BetterUp’s EX Index includes engagement, but is a better predictor of productivity, and takes a more holistic approach to employee wellbeing.

  2. Play the long game

    Because being an engaged-exhausted worker is, at least initially filled with strong positive reinforcement, there may be little motivation to make a change. These individuals enjoy a temporary steep rise toward the top (but few remain there) in a culture that incentivizes always-on employees. In some organizations, a habit of working well beyond expectations, even at the cost of balance, sleep, and health is treated as a badge of honor. Many organizations consciously or unconsciously choose short-term productivity over long-term sustainability. 

    One psychological strategy for garnering motivation to enact change is to recognize the cost of not changing. Research shows that high levels of engagement and exhaustion is a precondition of eventual burnout and turnover. If retaining a third or more of the most motivated, highest-performing workforce is important, then organizations should care about identifying and supporting their engaged-exhausted workers. 

  3. Focus on strengths that serve as a win-win 

    Our research points to a subset of attributes that are beneficial for both outcomes—preventing burnout and preserving or boosting motivation and engagement. Honing one’s capabilities in these areas might be the key to staying engaged without getting exhausted. These include developing the ability to focus on the task at hand and shield out distractions, simply becoming more aware of thoughts and emotions on a daily basis, and building up resilience in order to recover from setbacks and disappointments more quickly. 

    For organizations, this points to a need to ensure professional development moves beyond technical training and includes personalized development to build psychological resources or “soft skills” that can help employees succeed sustainably.

Final thoughts

Earlier I mentioned that one challenge with engaged-exhausted workers might be finding the motivation to change. Both the organization and the employee may fear that solutions addressing burnout could also lead to employees “losing their edge.” However, preventing burnout while boosting performance doesn’t have to be a conflict. We can tackle both with win-win solutions by leveraging nuanced measurement methods that give an accurate pulse on employee wellbeing, prioritizing sustainable success over short-term wins, and supporting the development of foundational strengths that prevent burnout without sacrificing performance.