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Post-covid employee engagement

Fiona Passantino, Early December, 2022

We all know what “burn-out” is: a medical-emotional condition that can be identified and quantified. “Burn-in” is an invisible, little-known phenomenon that affects high-functioning teams and is just as dangerous. How do you know if your team is in danger of “burn-in”? Is your high-functioning group its own worst enemy, operating in an unsustainable state of perpetual over-delivery? Are expectations too high, processes too cumbersome, deadlines too tight?

What’s “Burn-In”?

During Covid, we experienced an erosion of work-life boundaries and a subsequent 5% productivity increase. We do more, take on more, work more hours, deliver more. Our value is often measured by the amount of output, the number of things we are able to successfully juggle: more is more.

Some companies are proud of their reputations for “grinding people down” and “maximizing resources”. These places foster a culture of perpetual urgency and high-churn projects. Job security is low and subsequently, employees catch up on weekends and evenings more out of fear of losing their jobs than due to high engagement. This sets the stage for burn-out”.

“Burn-in” is harder to spot and nearly impossible to measure[i]. In general, highly engaged teams like to deliver, and consistently over-deliver. Working on weekends and evenings because they are high performers, feel the urgency, and want to give 110%.

“Burn-in” deepens when over-delivery becomes routine. It occurs when a high-functioning team becomes its own worst enemy, operating in an unsustainable state of perpetual over-delivery.

Team leads often reward overachievement by giving their teams more to do: bigger projects, harder assignments, more responsibilities. We recharge by doing even more: we plan mindfulness or meditation workshops which often lead to more emails to read, more events to plan, more meetings to attend and surveys to fill in afterwards when no one even asked for these classes in the first place. As we meditate and become more mindful, our inboxes and Workplace feeds are filling up, waiting to be answered.

Why do we do this to ourselves?“Burn-in” happens when teams’ insatiable need to feel useful, valued and irreplaceable are not being met. It is a combination of culture, peer competition, leadership and insecurity. We do it to ourselves.

The “Burn-In” checklist

How do you know you or your team is in danger of “burn-in”? Is your team high-functioning or are they operating in an unsustainable state of perpetual over-delivery? Are creeping expectations too high, processes too cumbersome, deadlines too tight?

Here’s a simple way to find out in about 15 minutes. Run through the “burn-in” checklist during the next team meeting. If more than 50% of the answers are “yes”, then the team is in danger.

  • Do you log in at night on a regular basis to “catch up”? If so, how many nights per week on average?
  • Do you dread returning after a vacation to an overwhelmingly full inbox, and everything you missed?
  • Do you check your mail when you’re on vacation to lessen these effects?
  • Do we end each project by immediately starting on the next one?
  • Do we attend regular, non-meetings but still go so as not to miss out?
  • When you are given a new, urgent task, do you just add it to the list along with your regular tasks and deadlines?
  • Do you feel unable to say “no” because someone else from the team will just have to pick it up?
  • When an open call for volunteers comes up, do you find yourself always raising you hand?

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[i] Deutscher (2022) “How Even Great Companies Are Draining Their Employees And How To Change It” Forbes Magazine. Accessed June 19, 2022. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2022/02/17/how-even-great-companies-are-draining-their-employees-and-how-to-change-it/?sh=4530b86c5bc0