Employee engagement: 4 counterintuitive signs of burnout

Want to keep your team members engaged and productive during challenging times? Recognize these surprising signs of burnout before it's too late
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Studies show that highly engaged employees result in higher revenues, better retention, stronger customer experiences, and higher overall satisfaction. Engaged employees are happier employees, and 39 percent of employees work harder if they are happy at work, one study of UK workers found.

In addition, engaged employees deliver a higher discretionary effort than their less engaged counterparts and act as brand advocates who will champion your organization when they interact with clients and colleagues. Employee engagement is the measurable outcome of investments in the broader employee experience.

These past six months have been the most stressful in history for employees. Factors beyond their control have challenged and changed nearly every aspect of their work and personal lives. For businesses, this means it’s important than ever to understand your workforce through the use of data and insights to monitor employee productivity, engagement, and wellness.

[ Are you over-communicating and not engaging? Read our related story: Remote leadership: 9 ways your style may backfire. ]

The pandemic, along with political and economic uncertainty, is compromising engagement — but sometimes in ways you might not be expecting. Here are four less obvious signs that employees are disengaged — or will be soon — as well as tips for course-correcting.

1. A burst in productivity

According to a national survey of 1,000 employees taken in mid-August, 58 percent of employees report burnout, up from 45 percent in the early days of the pandemic. While it might sound surprising, one sign that an employee may be likely to crash is a sudden burst in productivity.

Everyone wants their employees to work productively, often with a focus on improving productivity where decreases have been identified. But keep an eye on the other end of the spectrum as well: Spikes or significant improvements in productivity may be a sign of burnout in progress and may prove to be unsustainable.

Spikes or significant improvements in productivity may be a sign of burnout in progress and may prove to be unsustainable.

Be sensitive to adding further burdens to employees who are already overwhelmed in your efforts to identify those who need additional support or direction. Employee surveys, while well-intentioned, create more work and often can’t realize a near-term benefit. Instead, use technology such as Microsoft Workplace Analytics to monitor overall employee well-being. This enables you to measure working styles and changes to baseline productivity in tandem with your employee sentiment data.

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2. The camera is always on during video conferences

Have you seen that employee who always has their camera on during web conferences, exuding an abundance of energy and positivity? When you are on the receiving end, you might well think, “Wow — this person has it together.”

What you can’t see is the stress and energy expenditure that comes with a constant display of positivity and engagement. You might not realize they are teetering on disengagement.

Recent research by Microsoft suggests virtual meeting fatigue can surface in as little as 30-40 minutes. Contributing factors include a continuous focus on the screen, reduced non-verbal cues, and screen-sharing with little view of other meeting attendees. Give your team permission to turn their video sometimes, and lead by example.

3. They are always in a meeting

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, “Been in back-to-back-to-back meetings today!” If your day is swallowed by meetings, you are not engaged and very likely not productive. Rather, you are in a state of mild panic as you rush from one appointment to the next. I guarantee this will lead to disengagement.

If your day is swallowed by meetings, you are not engaged and very likely not productive.

Virtual meetings have become the new way of working and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. While most companies have provided some form of meeting effectiveness training, the significant impact of unmanaged meetings is prompting a renewed urgency. Review collaboration and meeting analytics and create new meeting guidance for your employees, and then monitor for improvement opportunities.

A great post by Jennifer Smith, CEO of Cursive, reminds us to encourage our teams to be more intentional by blocking out time for purposeful discussion, brainstorming, or even thinking so they can spend their day creating rather than merely reacting.

4. Your employee net promoter score (ENPS) may be misleading

Some customers may report higher-than-normal ENPS scores during the pandemic response. While those results can be encouraging, be wary of overestimating the staying power of the gains and consider a deeper look into engagement and survey data for signs of stress and burnout.

Certainly, the desired outcome is for employees to feel supported during COVID-19, but ENPS scores may not be a true indicator of workplace satisfaction. Encourage your managers and leaders to continually check in with their team members, because no matter how many tools you have, they can’t replace the human connection.

How to measure and maximize engagement

The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of work from home by at least five years. This brings permanent ramifications, many of them good ones. According to Gartner research, 74 percent of leaders intend to shift some employees to remote work permanently, and recent Microsoft research shows both employees and managers agree that WFH must be an option long-term.

Take this as an opportunity to rethink and reimagine what you’ve always done. You may assume employee experience is an “HR thing,” but it should be a collaborative effort with buy-in from the C-suite and support from the tech-enablement side.

Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Invest in data and insights on employee workplace activity to better inform decision-making
  • Seek to understand your employees by creating key digital employee personas and day-in-the-life journey maps
  • Provide and support digital communities where employee-led groups can connect to freely share ideas and feedback
  • Address meeting effectiveness in an intentional way with guidance designed to ensure employees can be productive and prevent burnout


Technology and data play an increasingly important role in employee experiences, and improving these experiences will drive higher engagement.

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Jesse Murray is SVP, Employee Experience at Rightpoint. Jesse passionately evangelizes the possibilities afforded by innovative technologies and ways to deliver world class employee experiences.