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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Education, Training and Labor

The Invisible Costs of Giving: How to Combat Generosity Burnout at Work


Have you ever felt exhausted from spreading yourself too thin? Or overwhelmed with commitments to others, with little time for personal errands or hobbies? Do you remember how this affected your concentration, work quality, and relationships?

You may have been a victim of generosity burnout. This idea, coined by two Wharton professors Adam Grant and Reb Rebele, refers to a state of emotional exhaustion that comes from giving too much. They show that having too many commitments to others can have detrimental effects on your work and personal life. In his book Give and Take, Grant presents extensive research on the wide-ranging effects of generosity burnout, from poor job performance to strained interpersonal relationships—even to diminished physical and mental health.

Studies report that workplace burnout translates into a loss of anywhere from $150 billion to $300 billion annually in the U.S. This comes in the form of sick days, personal days, and medical leaves. But mostly, it comes in the form of lost productivity. Even when people are physically present, they are performing at less than 100% due to exhaustion.

The paradox of burnout is that stretching yourself too thin often hurts the very people you want to help. You can no longer give meaningful support, because you are not operating at full capacity.

Berkeley professor and burnout expert Christina Maslach writes that public servants are at particular risk for generosity burnout because their roles often require emotional interactions with others. Social workers in mental health, welfare officers, and public defenders burn out at higher rates than, say, software engineers, because of the emotional exhaustion that comes from giving too much.

Let’s take teachers, for example. Anyone who has worked in education knows generosity burnout well. Teaching is a profession associated with giving and involves emotional interactions with students. A recent study compared teachers based on their giving styles: selfish versus selfless givers. Selfless teachers gave their time freely and helped whenever possible, without regard to their own personal life or well-being. However, these selfless teachers saw significantly lower scores on standardized tests at the end of the year.

Shouldn’t the teachers who were helping their students the most have the highest performing students? Paradoxically, selfless educators exhausted themselves trying to help everyone with every request. Because they worked nights and weekends to assist students, colleagues, and principals, “these teachers were inadvertently hurting the very students they wanted to help.”

Students’ learning and academic success is highly correlated with having high quality teachers. According to the researchers behind generosity burnout, an effective intervention – not just for teacher support, but for student success – may be to promote teachers’ mental and physical well-being. By putting their own oxygen masks on first, teachers are better equipped to help their students.

From schools to hospitals to nonprofit offices, organizations implement initiatives to improve employee well-being, such as yoga classes or fitness stipends. However, there is an even more simple and cost-effective way to combat burnout among those in giving professions: remind them of the impact of their work.

This worked for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The charity, which grants “wishes” to sick kids, encouraged their employees to choose their own job titles such “merry memory maker” and “fairy godmother of wishes.” This reminded them of the meaning in their day-to-day work and ultimately prevented emotional burnout and decreased turnover many months later.

For people who are a few steps removed from the beneficiaries of their work, it’s sometimes difficult to remember the impact they have. But remembering the impact your work has can prevent burnout at every level. When employees met beneficiaries of their work, for example, they displayed significantly higher job performance than a control group. This could mean scheduling regular meetings for EMTs to meet people who were saved by fast-acting paramedic interventions, or for foster care program administrators to meet foster kids who are thriving in their new environments.

When interviewed for this article about public policy solutions for burnout, Adam Grant suggested mandatory paid sabbaticals and vacations for public servants in giving professions. Reb Rebele suggested implementing systems that “triage” help requests and assign them evenly among employees, to combat the tendency of selfless givers to help with everything that comes their way. These solutions could protect against generosity burnout.

Those most at risk of generosity burnout are the people doing the most important work for our communities: the teachers, firefighters, and public health practitioners among us. I urge policymakers and leaders to implement these evidence-based solutions to guard against the negative effects of burnout. Something as simple as acknowledging the impact their work has on the lives of others can make all the difference. They are doing our society’s important work, and we have the responsibility to protect their well-being.


Nicole Abi-Esber is a behavioral science researcher at the Behavioral Lab in Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, where she examines issues of hierarchy and dominance in the workplace. Nicole is a graduate of Harvard University (MA) and Tufts University (BA). Her previous experience includes research with the Government of Dubai, and work in the startup and technology industry in the Middle East.


Edited by Dina Montemarano

Photo Credit: Søren Astrup Jørgensen on Unsplash