Learn to Thrive at Work and in Life

When I speak to organizations about burnout prevention, I often warn about the risks of either being—or leading—an “extra miler”.

If you consistently go the extra mile in everything you do, you’re a great asset to any team or organization (and anyone who knows you, really).

The phenomenon of the extra miler

Ning Li and colleagues, in their 2015 paper “Achieving more with less: Extra milers’ behavioral influences in teams,” describe an “extra miler” as someone on a team who exhibits a high level of “extra-role” behaviors, with the highest frequency of “helping” and “voicing” contributions to the team. Such an individual “can influence team processes and ultimately team effectiveness beyond the influences of all the other members.”

This is really good, right? Yes, but only to a point.

According to a Harvard Business Review article on “Collaborative Overload,” people “who become known for being both capable and willing to help” are “drawn into projects and roles of growing importance.” Not surprisingly, “their giving mindset and desire to help others quickly enhances their performance and reputation.”

Side effects: When giving and helpfulness go too far

Unfortunately, this initially virtuous cycle can quickly become a vicious one:

“Soon, helpful employees become institutional bottlenecks: Work doesn’t progress until they’ve weighed in. Worse, they are so overtaxed that they’re no longer personally effective. And more often than not, the volume and diversity of work they do to benefit others go unnoticed because the requests are coming from other units, varied offices, or even multiple companies.” 

I see this all the time in the leaders that I coach. Virtually every person I work with seems to be an “extra miler” type. They are extraordinary individuals, but by the time they come to me, they’re feeling burned out. And they’re struggling to get their most essential work done.

Because of their generosity, excellence, and (seemingly) boundless capacity, other people have gotten used to them going above and beyond. They spend so much time “helping” beyond their job description that the core functions of their role get squeezed out.

Worse yet, once other people come to expect “extra miler” behavior, it’s hard to dial it back. You can do it (I coach people through this all the time), but it takes determination, consistent effort, and actively suppressing your people-pleasing impulses.

A recipe for burnout

Another challenge: One would think that people who are this high performing and collaborative must be the most highly engaged in an organization, right?

Not so, unfortunately.

According to the HBR article, those who are seen as the best sources of information in an organization and are in the highest demand as skilled collaborators have the worst engagement and career satisfaction scores (a sure sign of burnout). This makes them highly likely to leave. If they stay, they can become so apathetic that their apathy starts to infect others. Yikes.

This is a tragic outcome for such enthusiastic, helpful, hard-working people.

In my experience, if you’re an extra-miler, you need to learn these skills:

  1. Develop the habit of monitoring where your physical, mental, and emotional resources are.
  2. Learn to pace yourself and give of yourself in a way that will be sustainable over the long term.
  3. When you notice that you are starting to become depleted, pull back, and find ways to recharge (you should be regularly recharging, anyway!).
  4. Learn to discern between your highest-yield “helping” activities versus those that are just distractions or time and energy wasters
  5. Develop healthy boundaries and communication skills so that you can protect time and energy for your most important work.

For specific tips with respect to the last point, read my post: “Why Lack of Boundaries Leads to Burnout.

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