Avoiding the Workplace Supernova – how to grow and look after your talent

Avoiding the Workplace Supernova – how to grow and look after your talent


So you have a Star Employee within your organisation, that workplace unicorn so rare and talented that others cannot fathom that they truly exist. Not only does this Star carry exceptionally high workloads, they deliver outstanding outcomes and seem to have an innate drive to truly help your business grow; all the while maintaining a positive disposition. It may be corny, but they really do just shine!

But suddenly your Star Employee stops shining so brightly. Maybe they are having more absences, are unable to carry their usual workloads, manage competing priorities, or the quality of their output has dropped. What’s more, they no longer seem happy and engaged with either their work or their colleagues. Or worse, despite no obvious change in attitude or workload, your Star Employee unexpectedly resigns; you suddenly find yourself the ‘dumpee’ in a workplace breakup, left pondering what went wrong. Moreover, you are faced with the challenge of determining how you will be able to replace such a vital asset who possessed innate skills unlikely to ever be replicated.

Herein lie the issue with Star Employees; there seems to be a perception that, although great while they last, the lifespan of a Star Employee is finite (and in some cases short at best).  What’s more, it seems that there is a belief that the exact qualities that make them a star also predispose them to an inevitable burnout out; this issue an unavoidable by-product  of great performance to be dealt with when (rather than if) it happens.

Contemplating why Star Employees burnout (beyond the overly simplistic notion of being ‘overworked’), I realised that Star Employees share a strikingly similar trajectory to actual stars; in fact they seem to mimic stellar evolution almost perfectly, from point of discovery and growth through to (seemingly unavoidable) workplace ‘death’. More so, I realised that to really understand why Star Employees burnout (and hopefully avoid it) we need to focus on the journey rather than the outcome; how can their process of growth result in burnout at the end.

Let me explain.

Identification and Growth of a Star

Introductory astrophysics tells us that the way a Star grows (after already forming into mass) is through consumption of particles and matter from within its environment. The Star attracts this matter and fuses it to its core; the particles consumed providing additional mass (increasing the stars size) and energy which the star can burn (allowing additional ‘shine’). In this way a star is heavily dependent on its environment because if the environment does not possess enough matter for the star to consume, or if the star is deprived of matter because it cannot compete with a bigger and brighter star in its vicinity, the star’s ability to grow is limited.

Thinking about this situation critically and you may start to see the similarities between Stars and Star Employees. Much like their stellar namesake the way in which a Star Employee is identified is through their ability to ‘consume’ tasks from their environment and deliver positive outcomes. The more tasks (matter) they take on the more the perception of them grows within the organisation, both amongst management and colleagues. Concurrently, each of these new tasks provides them opportunity to develop new skills and experience which facilitate personal growth.

The importance of this growth pattern is that it highlights the way in which an organisation can actually facilitate the development of a Star Employee. While there is no doubt that some people will have a stronger innate drive than others, all employees are dependent on the opportunities they are provided. When placed in a task-dense environment your employees are able to better demonstrate their ability to manage high workloads; competing priorities; and deliver strong outcomes – all Star Employee characteristics.

But, this is also where your Star Employees can be a curse to your organisation. Much like stars who are required to compete for matter, focusing on loading up your Star Employee because it is the easy (and fulfilling) option (for yourself and your Star) actually limits your ability to realise the potential for additional Star Employees within your organisation. More importantly, the tendency to over rely on one (or a few) of your employees also feeds the process of “burnout”.

You see, one of the most critical things for both Stars and Star Employees is balance. For every new piece of matter or task taken on Stars are required to draw on their internal energy to achieve the desired outcome. With actual stars, the heating of the core to integrate new materials is widely offset through the physical energy that is contained within the matter they are consuming, allowing them to maintain equilibrium. However for your Star Employees the benefits of consuming extra matter (tasks) are much less tangible. Sure they get the additional experience and skills but these higher workloads do not actually provide a physical energy pay off.

Destabilisation and ‘Burnout’

This is where things become interesting. Going back to astrophysics a fascinating detail about Stars is that they do not stop consuming nearby matter even when they become off balance (that is using more energy than they are gaining); if there is matter in their vicinity they will continue to consume. The end result is that eventually their primary energy store will deplete to a point that they will start to consume more of their own matter to continue their process of acquisition; the end state self-destruction.

Star Employees are exactly the same. With a benchmark set Star Employees will continue to take on more tasks to fulfil both their personal expectations and those of the workplace, regardless of whether they are already overextended. Of course, this is not a problem over the shorter term but for the longer term, once the energy stores are depleted your stars will start drawing on alternative ‘energy’ stores (I’m not talking pharmaceutical stimulants here but in some instances this may be the case). For example, your Stars may start drawing on time as a perceived source of energy such as working long hours and weekends to achieve objectives. They may also ‘save’ energy by reducing the amount of effort they put into any given task which allows them to spread this energy across the multiple deliverables that they are trying to manage; the unintended consequence often a reduction in the quality of output.

This use of additional ‘energy’ sets a fast track for self-destruction. Just like actual stars who start to burn away at more than their central energy, the drawing on external ‘energy’ sources by your Star Employees prevents opportunity for them to top-up their energy stores. Short of stopping what they are doing (which Star Employees are unlikely to do as they are often perfectionists and/or fear performance management), your Stars will eventually run out of energy resulting in inevitable collapse.

Like Stars, Star Employee collapse can present in two ways; the ‘supernova’ (or burnout as it is referred in the business arena) where warning signs such as reduced output or increased absences are noted until eventually the individual explodes completely, the remnants of their work being pushed onto other employees while the organisation figures out what to do; or ‘brownout’ where no warning signs are evidenced, like flicking an on/off switch, everything is great until your Star Employee implodes and goes dark.

Regardless of whether an employee suffers burnout or brownout, it has devastating effects for both your organisation and the individual. However, the more insidious nature of brownout makes it a much greater risk to your organisation; the lack of warning signs provides limited opportunity for you to proactively address the issue. That said, coming back to the actual stars we may realise that addressing issues once warning signs are present may do little to prevent collapse. You see, by the point you are noticing issues the employee is already well into their destabilisation cycle.

Let’s take the common approach of getting your staff to have “a couple of days off” when you notice signs of overwhelm as an example. While this is a great first step, the embedded nature of the energy imbalance cannot be counteracted by a short period of time; they have moved beyond just needing to top-up central energy stores, they actively have to stop the fusion of work energy expenditure into all facets of their life. As such, rather than preventing burnout this approach, if engaged once warning signs are evident, is likely to just delay the inevitable.

Don’t take this to mean that burnout is unavoidable – it isn’t. Rather, when it comes to all employees balance is the key. While you will never be able to completely control the rate of effort an individual invests (or the way in which they manage their energy) the following may help in promoting enhanced equilibrium:

  1. When assigning tasks it isn’t about the number of items but rather the energy investment tasks require; ensure high energy demanding tasks are more equally spread across your organisation.
  2. Ensure that expected benchmarks are realistic; setting them against someone’s peak performance is setting them (and you) up for failure. Recognition and reward of achievement above satisfactory performance will inspire your staff to continue to strive for more, allowing you to achieve better outcomes anyway.
  3. Build an environment where it is okay for people to ask for help or identify when workloads are unachievable. Your employees need feel comfortable that they can broach this subject with you without fearing negative consequences.
  4. When someone does highlight that they are struggling don’t automatically reduce their workload completely. Employees gain a lot of self-motivation (and self-worth) through their ability to be able to deliver positive outcomes. Even though done with the best intent, choosing to not give them important projects because they have highlighted issues may result in feelings of failure at the individual level. These negative perceptions could increase stress or prevent your employees from seeking help again, therefore increasing risk of burnout anyway.

Most importantly remember, that for all employees, their environment is key. Rather than focus on maximising the benefit from your Star Employees focus on creating an environment that is conducive to balance and growth for everyone. This will not only allow you to ensure the longevity of the top talent in your organisation but may also support other employees in realising their star potential.

Gemima Newcombe