Employee Wellness

Stress & Burnout

Why High-Performing Employees Need More Support to Cope with Stress

High-performing employees are especially susceptible to burnout and need mental health support to sustain a high level of work. Here are some strategies to get started.

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Thaddeus Rada-Bayne, Senior People Scientist at Culture Amp

10 min read

It’s easy to know intuitively that employee mental wellbeing is important. It’s harder to articulate exactly why that is. How does employee mental wellbeing tie to the business outcomes that leaders make top priorities? How can HR and benefits leaders make convincing arguments about the need for organizations to support employee mental wellbeing? 

I addressed these questions in a recent webinar hosted by Calm and Culture Amp for HR and benefits professionals. As Culture Amp’s Senior People Scientist, I’m privileged to work with employers worldwide to gather data related to employee wellbeing – and more importantly, to help them act on that data to continuously improve the experience they bring to employees. 

Mental wellbeing is a key driver of employee performance and retention

Over the past 12 years, Culture Amp has helped more than 6,000 customers create a better world of work. Partnering with this broad employer community is critical to our ability to learn and to hone best practices. And what we’ve learned definitively is this: mental wellbeing is key to sustainable employee engagement, performance, and retention. 

This is particularly true in challenging times. Supporting employees who remain after a reduction in force, for example, is essential. When hiring is hard, ensuring that talent is engaged and retained is critical. That’s why the conversation should focus on how to best support employees to ensure that engagement and performance remain sustainable – and key strengths that help to achieve desired outcomes. 

High-performing employees want and need resources to cope with stress to sustain high-level work and avoid burnout

Culture Amp recently conducted a large research study to determine the link between employee engagement and performance. Analyzing data from over 740 companies and 200,000+ employees, we uncovered three important insights about high-performing employees in the workplace. 

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High-performing employees care the most about having access to stress-management resources

First, we learned that the highest-performing employees care about whether an organization has the resources to help them cope with their stress. In fact, their willingness to commit to an organization is uniquely impacted by the stress-related support and resources they receive. While this type of support matters to other employees, too, high-performing employees are especially attuned to whether or not they’re receiving it, likely because their work practices make them susceptible to burnout.

a bar chart showing the percentage of employees who work in different areas

High-performing employees need support to manage stress to maintain their high level of work

Second, we wanted to understand what this meant for high-performing employees in terms of sustaining their level of work. Unfortunately, we found that more than half of high-performing employees tend to backslide into lower-performing categories when they don’t receive resources to cope with stress. This is likely because they tend to take on many responsibilities and wear many hats, which is hard to sustain, especially without necessary support.

a bar chart showing the highest performing employees

High-performing employees are energized by fast-paced work, but they tend to push themselves too far, risking burnout

Third, we found that the highest-performing employees tend to have unhealthy habits that can lead to burnout, and they need the most care to stay healthy and sustain their level of performance. For example, high-performing employees are less likely than other employees to feel they can get their work done during standard working hours. They often feel stretched thin and may find that the standard 40-hour workweek doesn’t give them enough time for completing everything on their plates. They also indicated that they’re less able than other employees to effectively “switch off” from work at the end of the day. 

Yet, despite these challenges, high-performing employees report feeling energized by a fast-paced work environment. They just need resources to help them cope with stress and to build healthy habits like taking mental health breaks to de-stress for a few moments during the day and unwinding at the end of the day. 

a bar chart with different types of employees

So the question isn’t necessarily “what can we take off the plates of our high-performing employees?” but instead “how do we help them continue their level of success in a sustainable way?” Equally important, how do we support the mental wellbeing of all employees, not just high-performing employees, and help them manage their stress so they can do their best work consistently? 

Actionable strategies to create a culture of wellbeing

How can you support your employees and help them better cope with stress and maintain a high level of performance? As shared in our webinar with Calm, here are some strategies and tactics that we’ve seen other companies use successfully or that we’ve used at Culture Amp to build a culture of mental wellbeing.

1. From the top, make mental wellbeing a priority and be vocal about it

Research shows that one of the key success factors of mental wellbeing initiatives is how well they’re supported by leadership and by peers. When leaders, managers, and coworkers use the programs and policies in place, employees feel safe using them, too. And when policies and programs aren’t used or talked about, employees are less likely to use them.

One way to build support is to empower managers to use one-on-ones with their direct reports to highlight the availability of mental health benefits and encourage them to use them, opening up the conversation. In fact, Culture Amp research suggests that employees at companies with a strong culture of consistent one-on-ones also tend to be less stressed and better at taking regular breaks.

 2. Establish a core set of shared values and model them day-to-day

Any company that has a successful culture of mental wellbeing has a shared set of values and expectations – a common language and framework that employees and leaders throughout the organization can use. 

It’s critical to model your values in an effective way – not only to have them published as something aspirational, but also to serve as a guide for people’s day-to-day interactions with each other. Tensions tend to arise when employees perceive a gap between the espoused values of an organization and the daily reality of working there.

At Culture Amp, we’ve started to tie specific behaviors to our core values, which is a new way to live them on a regular basis as we’ve grown larger.

 3. Gauge your company’s culture: ask employees for the elevator pitch

One way to gauge your company’s culture is to ask employees, “How do you define the way we work?” Do they identify a consistent set of behaviors? Is the culture productive or unproductive? One sign of an unproductive culture is making achievement the top priority at all costs, which is not sustainable. If your culture is unproductive, think through what you can be doing to intentionally shape the culture around one that’s productive and that puts employee wellbeing first.

At Culture Amp, I think our employees would consistently say we’re advocates of clarity and transparency. Specifically, learning faster through feedback is a core value of ours that fosters wellbeing. It’s a really good way to strengthen personal relationships and to get clarity into how others are approaching their work. You can learn a lot about how others manage stress, for example, and evaluate those strategies for yourself.

4. Measure your culture and employee wellbeing periodically

The first step is getting clear about your goals for doing an assessment. In what way does your organization hope to act on the feedback? How will a better understanding of your culture influence your decision-making or the policies and procedures that you might put in place? Once you’re clear about your goals, consider implementing a periodic set of surveys to create a baseline and understand trends about employee engagement and experience over time.

At Culture Amp, we keep a pulse on company culture and wellbeing by using our own platform and engagement templates. We run quarterly surveys, with every other survey being a broad baseline assessment. The surveys in between are check-in pulses to assess our action planning and how distinct aspects of the employee experience are trending upward or downward since the last baseline survey. 

As shared in our webinar, Calm uses the Culture Amp platform to conduct its own wellbeing surveys twice a year. It uses the data to identify specific demographic groups, departments, or managers that need additional support and then target interventions. Calm also compares its engagement scores to utilization rates of wellbeing tools to see how and where in the organization their initiatives are making an impact. Find out more how Culture Amp can help you keep your finger on the pulse of your employees’ wellbeing.

5. Adopt mental wellbeing resources to help employees cope with stress

Most organizations have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that focuses on clinical resources, but employees are often looking for more support from their employers, including solutions to help them manage day-to-day challenges such as stress, anxiety, and sleep issues. Engagement surveys can help you understand how your employees are feeling and if they need support in any of those areas.

At Culture Amp, one of the key pieces of feedback we received several survey cycles ago was that employees were not feeling as supported from a mental wellbeing standpoint as they would like to be. Calm was one of the mental health benefits tools we decided to adopt to help our employees better manage their stress, anxiety, and sleep. 

We also really like Calm’s focus on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, which aligns well with Culture Amp’s goals related to representation and the way employees experience inclusion. The diversity of Calm’s content means it has something for everyone, including a section just for kids. It’s important for loved ones to feel connected, so the fact that family members and friends can access Calm content is really beneficial to our people.

Our HR teams at Culture Amp use Calm as a resource when working with leaders and employees and specific challenges arise when Calm content and programming may be effective. And we take advantage of Calm’s engagement strategies and email templates pertaining to various heritage months or awareness months – sleep awareness month, for example – to drive employee utilization of the Calm resource. 

I’ve personally benefited from Calm’s “Weekly Wind-down” email that reminds me to incorporate mental health breaks to de-stress throughout my day. It’s a recurring reminder that wellbeing needs to be front and center, not just talked about when a crisis emerges or burnout is already happening. It’s a reminder that wellbeing matters. 

Employers have everything they need to improve employee mental wellbeing

Employers have never faced more pressure to empower employees to do their best work sustainably. And they’ve never been more equipped to do so. Data from a broad community of employers provides key insights about the support high-performing employees need to manage stress and avoid burnout. Powerful research tools allow employers to keep their finger on the pulse of how their employees are faring. And mental health solutions focused on prevention can empower employees to reduce stress and regain balance. Employees want and need more support to improve mental wellbeing. Employers can take action now.

About Culture Amp

Culture Amp revolutionizes how over 25 million employees across 5,000 companies create a better world of work. As the global platform leader for employee experience, Culture Amp empowers companies of all sizes and industries to transform employee engagement, develop high-performing teams, and retain talent via cutting-edge research, powerful technology, and the largest employee dataset in the world. The most innovative companies across the globe, such as Salesforce, Unilever, PwC, KIND, SoulCycle, and BigCommerce depend on Culture Amp every day.

Find out more information about Culture Amp.

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