In-Depth: How To Prevent High-Performing Teams From Burning Out

Christiaan Verwijs
The Liberators
Published in
13 min readNov 13, 2023

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One of the best teams I’ve worked with was really competitive. They wanted to reach their Sprint Goal and felt proud of their ability to do so. However, this frequently led to overtime, especially in the last days of the iteration. This overtime was not evenly distributed. Some people — including myself — tended to push on into the evenings while others (wisely) went home to enjoy family time and relax. This was unhealthy and stressful. Although this team did not burn out, it easily could have.

“How do I prevent my high-performing team from burning out?” is a question that recently came up in a community meetup. It's an intriguing question because it starts from a positive situation. If you’ve ever been part of a high-performing team, you know how exhilarating it can be. But paradoxically, it's also a place where people for people to lose themselves in their work together and collapse under the strain — as I did.

In this post, I want to apply an evidence-based perspective to this question. What we do know from scientific research about high-performing teams and how they can burn people out? What can do to prevent that, or at least diminish the chance of it happening?

This post is part of our “in-depth” series. Each post discusses scientific research that is relevant to our work with Scrum and Agile teams. We hope to contribute to more evidence-based conversations in our community and a stronger reliance on robust research over personal opinions. As you may imagine, it takes a lot of time to compile such evidence-based posts. If you think our content is valuable, and you think we should write more of it, you can support us on Patreon.

When Is A Team High-Performing?

The notion of High-Performing Teams was initially coined by the famous Tavistock Institute in the 1950s. It reflected an increasing interest in the so-called “human factors” of the workplace, such as motivation, job satisfaction, communication, loyalty, social identification, and other social needs (i.e. Trist & Bamforth, 1951). At the same time, the nature of work shifted from labor based on technical skills to knowledge work based on analytical skills. Where work was mostly organized along production lines since the Industrial Revolution, work was now increasingly organized into “work groups” of 5–30 employees, where each work group was given its own goal to achieve. Thus, teamwork as a managerial concept was born.

Teamwork as a concept emerged in the early 1960s. Illustration by

As the 1960s progressed, organizations increasingly explored what was required for effective teamwork (Thamhain & Willemon, 1987). Formalized methods for project management were developed around this time to optimize coordination, governance, and communication. At the same time, organizational psychologists started to develop theories and practices for team building and team performance.

Unfortunately, teamwork does not guarantee high performance. In fact, Hackman (1998) — one of the most prominent researchers in teamwork — concluded from empirical studies that teams generally underperform compared to groups of people who are not a team. This is often due to organizational constraints or mistakes by managers (e.g. rewarding individuals, micro-management, unclear goals, etc.). Hackman argues that six facts need to be true for teams to be high-performing:

  1. The task or goal is suitable for teamwork.
  2. The team has clear boundaries. Members know they are part of it and who else is part of it.
  3. The team has a clear goal that provides direction for its work.
  4. The structure of the team encourages teamwork, such as shared norms, composition, and skills.
  5. The organizational context is designed such that teamwork is rewarded, reinforced, and encouraged.
  6. Teams receive help and coaching in those areas where they are ready to receive it.

There are many other definitions of high-performing teams. Other models emphasize the motivation of team members, a tight-knit social structure, and stability. What is clear is that high-performing teams are capable of delivering high-quality work consistently, and are able to learn and adapt quickly.

The Cost Of High-Performance

It's great to be part of a high-performing team. But it can also be very stressful to maintain such a high level consistently

Individual burnout and performance

Burnout is usually described as a mix of emotional exhaustion, withdrawal, depersonalization, and a low sense of personal accomplishment (Maslach, Jackson & Leiter, 1997). Burnout is not strictly a disorder or a medical condition, but rather the result of enduring work-related stress. Stress is the biological response of our body to perceived and immediate stressors. It prepares our body for a fight-or-flight response by elevating levels of cortisol in our blood and by increasing muscle tension, restricting blood flow, and throttling non-vital functions. While this was a great strategy when we still lived on the steppes and were surrounded by dangerous animals, it doesn’t work so well in the modern workplace. There, social expectations from colleagues, deadlines, conflict with others, and worries about job security can be perceived as immediate stressors all the same and have the same physical effect as standing face-to-face with a sabretooth tiger.

Teams can burn out when there is no opportunity to slow down. Illustration by

If those stressors — the deadlines, conflicts, and job worries— persist, burnout accumulates over time. This is particularly true when people don’t feel they can slow down, take a break, or a leave of absence for a while. Eventually, burnout can lead to very severe health conditions, including heart problems, life-altering chronic exhaustion, clinical depression, and even suicide. A study among 1.501 US workers in 2021 showed that 3 in 5 employees experience elements of burnout due to stress. Burnout is something to take exceptionally seriously.

Taris (2007) performed a meta-analysis of the relationship between burnout and objective performance. Based on 16 empirical studies, he showed that people who score high on exhaustion (one dimension of burnout) reported lower commitment (r = -.19), were less able to perform their roles well (r = -.22), and experienced much lower customer satisfaction (r = -.55). So burnout is clearly harmful on the individual level, both to personal health and to business objectives. Consiglio et. al. (2013) also found much higher absenteeism and sick leave among people with higher levels of burnout, which is costly for employers. Many studies have shown that stressed developers make more mistakes (Furuyama, Arai & Lio, 1996, Sonnentag et. al., 1994). High-stress environments are also more likely to burn members out (Sonnentag et. al., 1994).

Team Burnout and performance

More recently, the notion of team burnout has emerged (Urien et. al., 2021) to explain why some teams seem to develop burnout collectively. For example, one empirical study of healthcare teams by Li et. al. (2014) found that 16% of the variance in individual burnout was attributable to a team-level factor: group cohesion. This line of research builds on research into team mental models. It argues that the members of a team individually and collectively continuously interpret their environment, stressors, and tasks. What is a stressor for one member may not be for another. Through a process called “compilation” (Kozlowski & Ilgen, 2006), teams may eventually develop a shared sense that they are burning out, overburdened, and overstressed. In turn, this makes members withdraw from teamwork and become more individualistic (Driskell, Salas & Johnston, 1999).

What this research tells us is that burnout contains a substantial subjective component. What is exceptionally stressful for one person may not be experienced that way by someone else. Similarly to post-traumatic stress (PTS), one person may develop deep trauma after a fearful event while another may not. In teams, these interpretations may converge over time. This subjective component may incorrectly lead people to incorrectly belittle, diminish, disregard, or discard signals from individuals or teams that they are burning out. But it really doesn’t matter if the reported stressors are there objectively or not; the perception is all that matters.

“But it really doesn’t matter if the reported stressors are there objectively or not; the perception is all that matters.”

How Can High-Performing Teams Burn Out?

So now that we understand more about what high-performing teams are and what (team) burnout is, we can investigate why it is that high-performing teams burn out. Unfortunately, I have not found empirical studies that investigated specifically high-performing teams. However, we can draw from the abundance of more general research on burnout in Agile teams to understand what might cause it (Tulili, Capiluppi & Rastogi, 2023). The following factors seem most relevant to me for high-performing teams:

  • The high norms for performance that make high-performing teams so successful can start creating stress and pressure at times when the team or its members are distracted by other events. These could be work-related (like membership in multiple teams, reorganizations, or changes in team composition) or of a personal nature (e.g. marital issues, mental health, illness, or grief). Examples of such norms are: “We always deliver on what we promise”, “We always aim to exceed expectations”, “We don’t complain when it gets tough”, and “We don’t stick to 9–5 hours if the work isn’t done”.
  • High-performing teams are typically close-knit socially (Hackman, 1987, Carless & De Paola, 2000). This is a great strength. But it can easily cause individual members to push beyond their personal threshold for stress because they feel it is (implicitly) expected of them and they don’t speak up about this.
  • High-performing teams may overcommit by taking on more work than they can manage. Their success may lead them to overestimate their own abilities, especially in the face of setbacks that inevitably happen.
  • High-performing teams often have a strong social identity (Carless & De Paola, 2000). This is likely a source of pride for team members. Such a social identity is a powerful contributor to their effectiveness. Particularly when high-performing teams have not yet experienced clear and visible failure (e.g. a security breach, a serious breaking issue), their first collective experience with such failure may damage this social identity much more severely than other teams.
  • Finally, high-performing teams can be wary of lower productivity and take a step back because they believe this is what is expected of them by people outside the team — even though they have the autonomy to do so.

In short, the factors that make high-performing teams successful can also cause the team to burn out eventually.

High-performing teams can overestimate their abilities and capacity, which is difficult when they run into problems. Illustration by .

How To Prevent Team Burnout

So what can be done to prevent (team) burnout, specifically in high-performing teams? Although I was unable to find studies that investigated this specifically for high-performing teams, I will infer recommendations based on existing research evidence from general teamwork () and Agile teams in particular (Tulili, Capiluppi & Rastogi, 2023).

High morale is important to create cohesive, high-performing teams

Strategy 1: Highlight the ability to self-manage

Lack of control, or low autonomy, has been linked to burnout. Glass & McKnight (1996) reviewed 32 empirical studies and found evidence for a modest effect. This effect is understandable. If individuals or teams don’t feel they can control the amount of work and other stressors, the sense of being trapped will eventually turn into burnout.

The emphasis here is on “feel”. High autonomy strongly contributes to the ability of teams to become high-performing (Verwijs & Russo, 2023, Lee & Xia, 2010), so it is often a given. However, while teams may technically have the autonomy to take a step back, take a break, or reduce their output for a while, they may not feel this is possible due to social norms, expectations (of themselves and from others) and not wanting to lose face. Just as a “workaholic” is often unable to stop working even though they can, teams can be “workaholics” in a sense too.

High-performing teams can be coached to leverage their autonomy to reduce work pressure, both for the entire team and for individual members. Here are some powerful questions we like to ask:

  • “What is one stressful activity we can let go of for a while to create a breather?”
  • “If you would observe our work as a team as an outsider, what would they recommend us to do in order to reduce work pressure?”
  • “What is one small change that you can easily make to slow down for a while, and without requiring permission or resources you don’t have?”.

The Liberating Structure 15% Solutions is exceptionally helpful here as it asks participants to come up with solutions that are within their control. Similarly, a Liberating Structure like TRIZ can be very helpful with an invitation like: “What are all the imaginative, creative, and devious ways in which we can ramp up our work pressure to the point where we all break?”. Once a large list is generated by the team, the exercise is flipped to help teams reflect on which of those things they are already doing if they’re fully honest, or at least already moving in that direction.

A capture of several TRIZ-based workshops by Christiaan Verwijs

Strategy 2: Highlight psychological safety and encourage people to listen

As the above shows, internal norms about productivity and performance may drive high-performing teams to push on even when they should take it slower. Individual members may feel hesitant to speak up because they don’t want to be the one who challenges the norm. Furthermore, it is also clear that team burnout results from shared sense-making in a team. This means that proper and open dialogue about stress, stressors, and how to deal with burnout plays an important role in how teams process stress. This relates closely to the concept of psychological safety. Edmondson (1999) defined it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking”.

Psychological safety buffers against stress and burnout by making it possible to openly discuss it (Delizonna, 2017). But being able to speak up may not be the same as “feeling heard” as one empirical study showed (Kerrissey, 2022), which may be more critical. Psychological safety also appears to decrease in response to team burnout as one initial empirical study among healthcare teams showed (Osei, Konadu & Osei-Kwame, 2022), which may cause a vicious cycle where people feel less and less able to speak up and thus experience more stress.

So an evidence-based recommendation is to develop both the safety of talking about stress and burnout before it happens and to coach teams to learn how to listen to each other. Furthermore, educating teams on the signs of stress and burnout and its effects (as described in this post) may help raise awareness.

A great way to do this is with a Liberating Structure called Conversation Cafe. It teaches people how to listen and take turns, and can be used to discuss personal and challenging topics. Potential invitations could be:

  • “Share a story of a time in your work when you experienced a lot of stress. What happened to you, your body, and how you interacted with others? What can we learn from this?”
  • “How can we be a high-performing team on the one hand while also being able to slow down when we need to so we, or individual members, can catch our breath?”
Conversation Cafe in a workshop with Swisscom and KPN iTV. Again, note how people are paying attention to each other. Pictures by Christiaan Verwijs and Barry Overeem.

Strategy 3: Create norms and work agreements to deal with stress

Implicit or explicit norms can make high-performing teams burn out over time. For example, a team can implicitly agree to engage in “crunch time” to reach their Sprint Goal, even when it means that members have to work longer hours. Such norms will become stronger if they are repeated. Another example is when teams implicitly agree not to complain (about stress), but instead carry on. Such norms may also be imposed outside the team, by management, or through company culture. High-performing teams may come to attribute their success to such norms, which makes it harder to break them for individuals and teams alike.

The first step is to make the norms about work and stress explicit. You can do this through a Liberating Structure like 1–2–4-ALL with the invitation: “Pick a recent scenario when work was tough and you felt stress. What seems to be true about how we deal with such scenarios and the decisions we make in them as a team?”. Alternatively, a perceptive coach can also make observations about areas such as:

  • How does the team deal with stress? Who usually takes charge? Who follows? What does the person who takes charge say or signal?
  • What happens with signals about stress, burnout, and pressure? How do people show they are listening? What happens next?
  • Looking at the cadence of a team, how does a team create space to take a breather, spend time on team building, or slow down?

Once norms are explicit, you can work with your team to soften them to more effectively deal with stress. You can also add more norms — through work agreements — to deal specifically with stress and burnout. We’ve always found the following sentences useful to complete for work agreements in this area:

  • “We encourage each other to maintain a sustainable pace by …”
  • “When someone in our team experiences a lot of stress, we …”. For example, you could do a time-out and collaborate on how to proceed.
  • “We agree to frequently and openly discuss how much stress we are experiencing and how we are dealing with it as a team on ….”

Closing Words

It is a great experience to be part of a high-performing team. At the same time, it can be stressful to be on such teams. Because the bar is so high, and the expectations so positive, these teams often struggle to slow down and catch their breath. In this post I shared scientific research about high-performing teams, (team) burnout, and what can be done to prevent it. While full prevention is impossible — burnout can happen for all sorts of reasons — there are evidence-based recommendations in this post to buffer teams against it. Give it a try!

This post took over 31 hours to research and write. If you think our content is valuable, and you think we should write more of it, you can support us on Patreon. Find more evidence-based posts here.

We thank all the authors of the referenced papers and studies for their work.

Writing an investigative post like this takes a lot more time than an opinion piece. We have to delve through many scientific papers, collect data, and compile it into something readable. The analyses and writing of this post took over 23 hours. So we’d be deeply grateful for your support. Check out patreon.com/liberators to support our free blog posts, podcasts, the development of the Scrum Team Survey, and more.

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Christiaan Verwijs
The Liberators

I liberate teams & organizations from de-humanizing, ineffective ways of organizing work. Developer, organizational psychologist, scientist, and Scrum Master.