High Performers and Burnout: Keep High Achievers in Good Mental Health

3 Jan ‘23
4 min
Work performance
Editorial Board OpenUp
Gecontroleerd door Psychologist Eva Rüger
Imagine: you win a pie-eating contest and your prize is more pie. That’s how it can feel to be a high performer: they work hard and their reward is more work. They pay a price for this as mental health challenges (including burnout) are more common in high achievers.


What can you as an HR professional or manager do to recognise and prevent mental health challenges in high performers? This issue arises in almost all organisations, but it’s particularly prevalent in organisations with a greater number of high performers. We’re talking about consultancies, law firms and companies in the financial sector.


Why does burnout occur more often amongst high performers?


One in five high performers experience some form of mental health challenge. They are more likely to take  on more work, chase promotions and work more overtime.

The work habits of high performers partially explain why they are more likely to struggle with mental health challenges. At OpenUp, we see the following reasons for this (forgive us if we’re generalising a little):

  • Completing a triathlon, painting a masterpiece, climbing Mont Blanc: high performers at work are often high performers in their private lives. Rest always comes second.
  • High performers are more likely to feel a need to prove themselves. They want to exceed their own standards as well as everybody else’s. They’ll always try to do things a bit better than others. 

If they know that clients are paying thousands of euros or pounds a day for their organisation’s services, then they don’t feel like they can have an off-day or an off-week.


But business practices – often unconsciously – put pressure on the mental health of high performers, according to the Harvard Business Review:


  • High performers get assigned more difficult projects
  • High performers are often expected to support employees who don’t perform as well
  • High performers are more likely to be asked for help on things not directly related to their role
  • “Top tier” companies often have an up-or-out system (either you get promoted or you get fired) or several employees compete for the same promotion
  • (Extreme) overworking is seen as a normal part of the role or even rewarded
  • The company culture doesn’t encourage openly discussing your feelings 


How can you recognise mental health challenges in high performers?


The easiest way to recognise mental health challenges in your staff is if they tell you directly that they’re facing a challenge. This means that having a culture where people can openly discuss their feelings is the most important thing. We’ll come back to this later.

Other signs of mental health challenges or even burnout include:


  • Seeming distracted and less engaged during meetings and events
  • Physical absence from social activities
  • Decreased productivity
  • Frequently calling in sick
  • A short fuse; easily irritated
  • Struggling to cope with feedback
  • Forgetfulness and sloppy errors
  • Complaining about tiredness, not sleeping well and pain (for example, headaches, neck pain and back pain)


Not all HR professionals or managers are trained to recognise signs of poor mental health.  But the psychologists at OpenUp will be able to help you to refresh this knowledge within your organisation.

While you’re at it: it’s worth teaching every employee to recognise the signs of mental health challenges. You won’t always be there, so it’s often easier for team members to keep an eye on each other.


How can you help high performers to avoid mental health challenges and burnout?


The thing is, once the signs of burnout present themselves, it’s actually already too late. It’s more productive to put the steps in place to help employees avoid these mental health challenges. Here’s how you can do that:



1. Allow high performers to choose their own projects (every now and then)


This way you’ll make sure that the most demanding projects aren’t always being given to the high performers. High performers can choose less complicated projects when their mental health demands it.


2. Encourage people to be open about their feelings


You could fill a library with books about creating an open corporate culture. The first step is to talk openly about your own feelings and encourage employees to speak up as well. On Spaces to OpenUp you can find interesting group sessions or masterclasses on this topic. Register here for the group session “Learning to deal with emotions” or forward the link to your team.


3. Encourage a culture of openness throughout your organisation 


You could do this through  newsletters, podcasts or videos, sharing weekly or monthly stories from colleagues about their mental health challenges. Make sure some of these come from colleagues in higher positions: they can set an example.


4. Make weekly “openness and transparency” meetings part of your standard routine


At management consultancy BCG, employees fill out a weekly survey about their feelings and energy levels. These are then discussed with the project team. Be strict about the purpose of these meetings: the goal is not to discuss work-related topics.

From time to time, have a professional join, for example, someone with knowledge of occupational psychology. Have someone internally who can do this? Fantastic! If not, OpenUp has professionals available to help.

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5. Offer desirable employee benefits which support mental health


Be generous with holiday and periodic extended (unpaid) leave. You might also consider offering a substantial package of additional provisions, like unlimited access to guided group sessions and 1:1 consultations with OpenUp psychologists. 


6. Have a “no questions asked” policy if an employee needs an extra day off


If someone tells you that they feel unwell, then let them stop working for the day, without demanding a detailed explanation. Agree to talk about it the following day, so you know what’s going on.

And be flexible when it comes to granting days off or re-delegating projects if the mental health of an employee requires it.


7. Discourage (extreme) overworking


We sometimes hear stories of teams pulling all-nighters and as a result, being hailed as heroes. As far as we’re concerned, that’s a no-go.

Of course, sometimes a project comes along that requires a bit of a push to the finish line. But when long working days and working weekends become what’s generally expected and part of the culture, then you’ve got the perfect recipe for burnout.


8.   Evaluate potential stressors within your organisation


An up-or-out system is a significant contributor to success at high-performing companies: only the best employees remain. But it also creates an enormous amount of stress, as well as encouraging people to work overtime. Do some research – through surveys or interviews – and find out what employees are finding stressful. Then examine the extent to which these factors are still serving or working against the organisation.


 9. Grant one or several “mental health days” per year


Holidays often have to be scheduled a long time in advance. A you-day, mental health day or whatever you want to call it, can be squeezed in at the last minute, whenever someone needs a moment to come up for air. The employee shouldn’t need to provide an explanation as to why they could use a day off, if they don’t want to.


High performers are invaluable to any organisation. So let’s keep it that way by making sure they remain in good mental health. OpenUp is the perfect fit for supporting your organisation and your employees.


Want to know exactly what OpenUp is doing to support the mental health of employees? 👉🏼 Learn more  or book a short demo.

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