Being highly engaged at your job won’t make you happy

For quite some years, companies, HR professionals, consultants and managers have been focused on finding the secret sauce to building the engagement of teams. As is the case with mostly everything, it turns out that what we should be aiming for is something far more moderate.

I’ve recently caught myself telling coworkers and friends that being too engaged in your job is actually detrimental to you and to your company. It sounded really good, so I decided to see if there’s some science behind this seemingly intuitive thought that I had. Turns out there is.

A study conducted by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence actually talks about the perils of (too) high engagement in employees.

First, turns out that there’s three categories of employees from an engagement point of view:

  • dis-engaged: they don’t necessarily believe in or care about the company’s mission, they lack the drive and determination to do their own work, let alone get involved in larger initiative
  • optimally engaged: they care about the company’s mission, they have solid performance and involvement not only in their own tasks but also projects that aim for company-wide improvements, and report a state of low-stress and mostly positive feelings related to their job
  • engaged-exhausted employees: they have an almost primal and emotional relationship to the company’s mission, strong personal bonds with coworkers, miss the mark on detaching from their job and enjoying their personal life and are very adamant with what they consider to be malfunctioning in their work environment.

Out of the three categories, the one with the highest levels of engagement is the last one. Unfortunately, it is also the category that will produce the most cases of burnout and resignation.

It seems that high engagement can quickly turn into an attitude that is so intense that it is impossible to cope with long term. It becomes detrimental — not only in terms of performance but also in terms of the relationships and emotional environment created at work.

What I would add to this, from my own personal experience of having a tendency of becoming an engaged-exhausted employee, is that you will not be able to create the change you want from this state of mind. What you will end up being is way too intense, way too impatient, way too emotional to be able to think through and produce an effective strategy to give you the results you want.

When you are too involved in your job but also too keen on your own perspective of what should be done, you turn into a naysayer. A party pooper. You go on and on on what others do wrong and what the company is lacking. You forget that significant change takes a lot of time. You end up not only alienating coworkers, but also burning out too much valuable physical, mental and emotional fuel. Your health and your personal life take a strong hit.

So how could you stay out of the engaged-exhausted gang:

  • remember it’s just a job. Regardless of how much you believe your life depends upon it, your job is and should be just a part of who you are. Find other things that fill you up with joy and meaning, outside of the working hours — in simpler words, find a hobby and invest time into it. Do not let your job become your identity.
  • become aware of the limits of your power. As I said before, wanting to change a company is a long-term process, and it cannot and will not rest solely on one man’s shoulders. Sometimes the healthiest thing to do is to know when to stop trying and when to leave room for others to fight for what’s right — which leads me to the 3rd point:
  • question your perspective. Are you the only one having this opinion? What if the things you have been advocating for are not actually the right ones? What if you’re wrong? What if you’re missing a point? What if there’s a reason to why things are the way they are in your current company — regardless of how much they annoy you? Sometimes, imperfection of systems is functional — which is to say, in some situations a less than ideal solution is actually the best.
  • have your own personal watch-dog. In this case, this means having a close friend who is there to keep his eyes on you and tell you when you’re being too involved in your job. Someone who cares enough about you to tell it as it is, and to snap you right out of your bad state.
  • consider if you should stay. If you find yourself fighting the same battles again and again, but haven’t won any of them, maybe you should actually consider leaving your company. Maybe you haven’t cracked the code on making yourself heard. Or maybe the people in that company hear you loud and clear, but don’t agree. Staying for too long in a job or a company that makes you unhappy doesn’t do you or that company any good.