What’s the Relationship between Employee Engagement, Stress, and Burnout?

Oct 6, 2020 | Blog

Over the past months, employee engagement has reached record high levels in many organisations across the globe.

Forbes defines employee engagement as “the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals”.

Employee Engagement is highly desirable in all organisation. In fact, Forbes reports that “companies with engaged workers have 6% higher net profit margins, and… have five times higher shareholder returns over five years.”

However, there is a darker side to employee engagement that has recently been getting recent attention: burnout.

“Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest and motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.”  Helpguide.org

What’s the connection between employee engagement and burnout?

When employees are highly engaged they’re more willing to work longer hours, spend more time with their colleagues and are more productive than otherwise.

All of this output and engagement comes with a side effect: stress. And when stress continues for a long time, this can lead to burnout.

However, the link between employee engagement, stress and burnout are not quite as straightforward as you might think.

“extreme stress hinders the expansive, associative thinking needed for creative insight (and can lead to burnout over time).” Dorie Clark

The two types of stress: Eustress and Distress

You see, not all stress is bad. In fact, Scientists have identified two types of stress: eustress and distress.

“Eustress” is positive stress – the type which energises and motivates you. This is what we think of when we think of employee engagement.

Examples of eustress in the workplace are getting a promotion, being ambitious, being positively competitive with your colleagues, feeling connected to your work, achieving your targets, or starting a new educational programme.

Meanwhile, “distress” is negative stress.

It is this latter form of stress which leads to employee burnout.

Examples of distress are failure, conflict in your professional relationships, not receiving recognition for your work, fear of losing your job and being generally overburdened.

The purpose of employee engagement is to create the positive eustress but avoid the negative distress.

Organisations need to successfully create eustress in order to create engaged employees who are happy, productive, and healthy.

To help you achieve this in your organisation, here are our 5 tips to help you positively engage your employees by promoting eustress and reducing distress.

1. Review goals and targets

Goals are key in order to create engaged employees. After all, employees need to know where to what extent they must exert their efforts.

However, while high goals which push us are to our limits are motivational, they only remain so when they lay within reach of our abilities.

When an employee consistently fails to meet their targets because they are unachievable, then this risks demotivating your employee.

You need to provide your employees with the resources they need in order to achieve their goals and targets.

Speak to your employee about why they haven’t been achieving their goals. Consider revising these goals if there is a legitimate reason why they’re unattainable.

Encourage your employees to suggest goals which they want to work toward. If an employee is inspired by a goal this will create eustress, and the employee is more likely to feel proactively motivated.


2. Get your employees the resources they need

Harvard business review report that a major differentiating factor between negatively and positively stressed employees are the resources they have at hand.

If employees feel they have the tools they need in order to achieve their targets, they’re less likely to feel overwhelmed, pessimistic and distressed.

Make sure your employees have access to softwares and information which they need in order to do their work successfully.

Connect your employees to the right people in your organisation who can help them achieve these goals. This might include mentors, people from other departments, or people who’ve got experience in similar projects.

3. Be transparent with your employees.

At a recent workshop, many of our participants reported that one of the most effective means they had of decreasing stress amongst their employees was by assuring them that their employers would protect their jobs.

Employers found that when employees were scared of losing their jobs due to the pandemic, they worked harder and for longer hours.

Fear of the unknown contributes directly to feelings of distress in employees, but transparency is a cure to this.

Though it may not be possible to promise that you will protect your employees from lay-offs, what you can do is be honest with them about the state of your organisation.

Tell them how business is going for the organisation. Let them know if their job is threatened. Be proactive about the truth in order to stop rumours and fear spreading.

This will create an environment of trust between you and your employees, making them feel more committed to your organisation.

4. Make your employees laugh.

It’s a common tip that one should open a presentation with a joke. But did you know that laughter has a direct impact on stress levels?

In fact, a study of 18 healthy adults showed that cortisol actually decreased in response to laughter. Laughter also stimulates your lung muscles, making you draw in more oxygen increasing blood flow to the heart.

On top of the physical benefits, humour affects both eustress and distress levels. It creates a sense of cameraderie, which will will contribute to positive stress in your team. And since fear of failure is a common cause of distress, making a more relaxed workplace atmosphere will negative stress in your organisation.

Make an occasional joke in team meetings and send your teams jokes you think they may enjoy. If you’re not the humorous kind, encourage your employees to send amusing memes to one another on social channels.

However, make sure that you and your teams keep it professional. The purpose of humour is to connect people, not to alienate them.

5. Encourage employees to think positively and have a growth mindset

Simply having the wrong mindset can lead to excess stress amongst your employees. Bad time-management or becoming overwhelmed by negativity can have a detrimental effect on your people, and directly contribute to distress.

A growth mindset allows your employees to view failures or roadblocks as a chance to learn, rather than get bogged down by them.

Encourage your employees to take occasional breaks where they can reflect on their work and performance.

Give constructive feedback. Do not simply list failures, but point employees in the right director and show them how they can improve.

Don’t forget to recognise your employees for their good work. This will show them they’re on the right path and encourage them repeat such successes.


Distress and burnout are the last things any leader wants for their employees.

By following these simple tips, you’ll be well on your way to promoting eustress and diminishing distress in your organisation, helping you to build a company which is highly engaged while diminishing the chance of burnout.

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