To Protect Your Best Employees From Burnout, Steal The NBA’s Load Management Concept


Many of your best employees are at high risk of burnout (if they’re not there already). One of my employee engagement studies found that in 42% of organizations, high performers are actually less engaged than low performers. In other words, your most valuable people are often less inspired, happy, motivated, etc. than the employees who deliver the least value.

There are myriad reasons for this, but here’s a simple illustration: Imagine it’s late Friday afternoon, and just as you’re about to leave the office, your boss dumps a potentially career-making project in your lap, due Monday at 9 a.m. You won’t get it done without help from one of your employees, so you’re both in for a long weekend of work. Now, which of your employees are you going to ask for help? Your best high performer? Or one of your low performers? Of course, you’re going to turn to your best high performer.

Imagine a similar situation happens again the next week. Once again, we’ll call on our best high performer. And what about the next time, and the next, and the next? Do this thought experiment enough times and you quickly realize that the person with the toughest job in your company is likely your best high performer.

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This is where the NBA’s load management concept comes in. Load management essentially means monitoring and managing a player’s physiological stress. As ESPN writers Kevin Pelton and Kevin Arnovitz put it, “A player exerts himself during practices, individual skill sessions, cardio work, dynamic warm-up routines, postgame recovery regimens, cross-country flights, lack of sleep, you name it. All of this info is fed into the load management program, and a group consisting of the player, training staff, sports scientists, coaches, management and, often, ownership collaborate to look at the biometric data and determine when that player is bumping up against his load capacity.”

Load management is fundamentally about ensuring that players don’t exceed their capacity, so they can recover faster, avoid injury, and achieve peak performance in the most important games (e.g. the playoffs).

Because it typically involves sitting out games (e.g. sitting out the second game of a back-to-back series), there are plenty of commentators, former players, fans, etc. who bemoan the “softness” of today’s NBA players. “Back in my day…” seems to start the vast majority of complaints about load management.

The issue, however, is that we know more about burnout (whether physical or mental) than we did decades ago. And whether we’re talking about NBA players or the high performers in an office, it’s just smart business to keep your best people ready to peak perform in the most important situations.

How do you start protecting and load managing your high performers? Here are two simple practices to get you started.

Practice #1: Start Tracking Time

It will be tough to discern if you’re misusing your best employees’ time if you don’t know where their time is spent. So have them start tracking their time, looking for activities that aren’t terribly important and that could be eliminated or delegated.

More than 17,000 people have taken the online test “How Do Your Time Management Skills Stack Up?” And one of the questions asks respondents to choose between the following options:

On most days, time flies by and I don’t track where I spend every minute or hour.
I regularly track my time (whether manually or with software) so I know exactly where my time goes throughout the day.
A small portion (31%) are actively tracking their time while more than two-thirds (69%) are not. And as you might imagine, those who do track their time report being significantly more productive than those who don’t.

This isn’t about micromanaging or looking over employees’ shoulders, rather it’s about helping your best employees focus their energy on the activities that will drive the greatest value for the organization. If they’re regularly writing reports that nobody reads or sitting in meetings that accomplish nothing, manage their load (i.e. eliminate those activities) so they’re fresh for the important things.

Practice #2: Assess Employees’ Motivation

One of the warning signs that your team could use some load management is when their motivation is high but they’re unhappy with the company. And our study called Employee Engagement Statistics Are Missing 2 Critical Groups Of Employees discovered that 26% of employees meet that criteria.

We analyzed 31,664 employees using 2 distinct engagement survey questions:

I am motivated to give 100% effort when I’m at work.
I recommend this company as a great organization to work for.
Using a statistical technique called k-means clustering, we discovered that 26% of employees are Motivated But Unhappy at work. These are workers that are highly motivated to give 100% effort at work, but they do not recommend their company as a great organization to work for.

When someone is motivated to give 100%, but they’re increasingly frustrated by deficiencies and roadblocks in the workplace, it’s easy for them to enter a spiral of negativity. The more frustrated they get, the more they grit their teeth and plow through their workload without pausing and contemplating ways to make their job and workplace more livable. This, in turn, leads to even more frustration, which leads to more teeth-gritting, etc.

Much like an NBA star who plays through injury, only to reaggravate and worsen the original injury, our best employees will often slog through their frustration until they’ve burned themselves out. When you see an employee who’s motivated and taking on lots of work, but their demeanor increasingly displays frustration and irritation, manage their load.

If you want your best employees fresh for the playoffs (or that big board presentation, or the once-in-a-lifetime sales opportunity, or whatever), it’s important to track their time and keep tabs on their motivation. It’s likely they’ll resist and want to work through anything and everything, but it’s our job as their leader to ensure they’re not burned out, and thus compromised, when we really need them.

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