The Dark Side of Employee Engagement

Greg Marcus Headshot Low Res

Greg Marcus PhD offers self help for the chronically overworked.

It’s common knowledge that managing work stress is a bear when your job is not fulfilling. But there’s an even darker side to work stress that might not come to mind too often; when we actually like our jobs to the point of overwork and burnout. Greg Marcus PhD has a handle on this and explains in his thought-provoking guest post, here at

Conventional wisdom says that having more engaged employees is a good thing for both the employee and the company. Organizations with higher levels of employee engagement have higher productivity, lower absenteeism, and lower turnover.

For employees, an engaging workplace is a positive, in that it suggests higher satisfaction, fulfillment, and happiness at the workplace. Engagement at work however, is not the same thing as happiness in life. On both the personal and business level, too much engagement can be a bad thing.

For a time, I was too engaged with my company. I was being paid a lot of money to help revolutionize the world of genetics research. In some ways, that is exactly what the company did. I found the work fulfilling, and when the opportunity came for my product to be used in a large autism genetics study, I did whatever I could to help close the deal. I told the customers about my autistic brother, and said that if we didn’t have the best solution, I would not be telling them to buy it. We were in fact the best, and they paid us a million dollars.

I was thrilled to tell my story at the quarterly company meeting. To this day, my role in landing the autism sale remains a point of pride and personal satisfaction. By all measures, I was an engaged employee. Not because of any engagement program, but because of the intrinsic nature of the situation.

But there was a downside: the autism deal was like adding pure oxygen to a flame. My engagement with the company grew to a raging inferno of blind loyalty. As I wrote in my book Busting Your Corporate Idol,

“Not only did I drink the Kool-Aid, I served it. I bought into the idea that we needed to do what was best for the company, and everything else [in my life] came later. It wasn’t conscious, but on a day-to-day basis, I made choices that increased my work hours at the expense of my home and health.”

My excessive engagement also brought negative consequences to my employer. In Busting, I shared that I led a product development team that made an impossible launch date. Yes, I led dozens of people on the work equivalent of the Bataan Death March, driven by blind obedience and excess zeal. There were no complaints, because we were all engaged, and we were all on a mission. Perhaps I would have been a hero had the product actually performed in customer hands. It didn’t, and it wasn’t pretty.

With a healthy level of engagement, I would not have blindly followed the directive to make the launch date come hell or high water. Instead, I would have led the team to objectively evaluate where we were, and then communicate the need to push back the launch date. Of course if I’d had a healthy level of engagement, I would not have been picked to lead the team. The company culture favored people who would do what it takes to get the job done, especially when it came to launch dates.

Do you want to hire the person who will never say no, and will work all the time?

Do you want to be super engaged at work, at the cost of weaker relationships with the people you care most about?

Think of the most zealous person you know at work. They aren’t exactly easy to work with, are they?

What is the right level of employee engagement? Tell us what you think.

Greg Marcus, Ph.D. is a recovering workaholic who helps the chronically overworked find life balance through his writing, public speaking, and personal coaching. Dr. Greg is the author of Busting Your Corporate Idol: How To Reconnect With Values & Regain Control Of Your Life, and founder of the Idolbuster Coaching Institute.

For a time Dr. Greg worked 90 hours a week, which impacted his personal health and family relationships. Then, he cut his working hours by a third, and at the same time accelerated his career. The secret? He rejected his corporate idolatry, and started putting people first.

  • Greg Marcus

    While I was writing the post, I finished reading David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. I am writing about a phenomenon that fits his concept of the inverted U shaped curve. Having more of something may be good for a while, but then too much of something leads to worse results.

  • osiris7

    Rest in peace, Judy. Thanks for everything and may your star shine on.

  • Sad right now

    So sorry you are gone. RIP Judy…

  • kmckee2626

    Judy you were like a friend. So sad now. RIP, you will be missed

  • Greg Marcus

    I just checked in to see if there were any comments, and I am stunned beyond belief that Judy is gone. She was incredibly kind and supportive to me as a new writer and as a person. I can only imagine how hard this must be for those who were close to her. Please accept my deepest sympathies. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

  • Profran

    All the good one’s are going home; how sad..

  • Don Higgins

    There should always be a balance between your work and life. Absenteeism at work because of an overly focus on a personal life certainly isn’t good. But focusing on work and losing touch with people outside of work isn’t the right choice either. Plus an excessive engagement isn’t always beneficial for the company..