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To Prevent Burnout, Show Employees How They Help

How can managers prevent burnout in employees who don’t like their jobs? Show them how their work helps others.

By shifting their attention outwards, employees dwell less on their tasks and focus more on the positive impact of their work on others. An additional bonus – employees who are less burned out not only feel better about themselves and their job, they perform better.


Employee burnout is a common concern for companies today. Emotional exhaustion brings with it lower performance and customer service, both of which can quickly kill your business. Researchers have found that employees who view their work or themselves focus negatively on the unpleasantness of their tasks. However, little is known about strategies to guard against burnout under these circumstances. Grant and Sonnentag conducted two related studies – one on university fundraisers and another on public sanitation employees – to see how to buffer against burnout.


  • The experience of helping others focuses attention outward. This enables employees to cope with negative feelings about themselves and their tasks, buffering against emotional exhaustion.

  • Emotional exhaustion is associated with lower supervisor performance ratings – employees with low evaluations of themselves and their work, but feel they were helping others, perform better.

Implications for Managers

  • Engage employees in high-impact jobs, meaningful volunteer work, or other “helping” activities where possible to reduce emotional drain or balance difficult tasks.

  • If employees are already helping others through their work, remind them. Show or tell your workers about the impacts they’re having – with fundraisers, for example, this could mean having students who have benefited from funds raised talk about the impact on their lives.

Implications for Researchers

This research suggests that focusing on helping others may improve performance of employees with negative task and self-perceptions.


The authors surveyed 82 university fundraisers and 215 employees and supervisors at a public sanitation plant. The survey asked employees to indicate on Likert-type scales the extent to which they agreed with statements about their emotional exhaustion, intrinsic motivation, core self-evaluations, perceived pro-social impact, and controls. Supervisors were asked to rate employees’ overall job performance. They computed correlations in study 1 and developed a model to test whether emotional exhaustion mediated the effects of perceived pro-social impact on the relationship of intrinsic motivation and core self-evaluation with performance.

Grant, Adam M. and Sabine Sonnentag. (2010) Doing good buffers against feeling bad: Prosocial impact compensates for negative task and self-evaluations. Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 111 p13-22.

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  • Pam Laughland
    Managing Director
    Network for Business Sustainability
    MSc in Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph

    Pam Laughland was Managing Director at the Network for Business Sustainability from 2011 to 2017, and previously was the organization's Knowledge Manager. Prior to joining NBS, Pamela held research positions at the Richard Ivey School of Business, Statistics Canada, and the University of Guelph. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Ivey Business Journal and the International Journal of Biotechnology. She holds an MSc in Resource Economics from the University of Guelph.

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