Bill, an information technology manager at a large Ontario telecommunications company, used to love his job. He had been there 14 years and had looked forward to staying with the firm for a long time. Then the crunch came. The company laid off staff to deal with a business downturn.
The cuts left Bill shouldering an increased workload.
For the next six months he operated at full tilt.
The payback? He got headaches. He was so fatigued, he made careless errors.
He felt resentful, unappreciated and even depressed.
Usually social, Bill was beginning to withdraw-eating lunch alone and being less collegial with coworkers.
Things reached the point where Bill dreaded coming to work and contemplated quitting.
Quite simply, Bill was emotionally exhausted.
According to Russell Cropanzano, a psychologist with the University of Arizona, Zinta Byrne of Personnel Decisions International in Colorado and Deborah Rupp, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, emotional exhaustion hurts workers and organizations.
Their research, which appeared in February’s Journal of Applied Psychology, demonstrates that emotionally exhausted employees are less committed to and less effective on the job, and less likely to invest themselves in their organizations. Turnover is higher for burned-out workers. They experience more illness–headaches, depressed immune systems – than more emotionally invigorated staff.
The researchers observed that decreases in job performance, reduced organizational citizenship behaviour (pitching in to help others with their workloads, for instance), less commitment to the company and increasing thoughts about quitting risk jeopardizing company success.
In our experience, organizations can prevent and counter emotional exhaustion by adopting strategies that focus on reducing the underlying causes of burnout. Here are some tips:
Companies that monitor employee workloads, ensure an even distribution of work and teach proper delegating behaviour are less likely to tax workers. Remaining vigilant about how much workers have to do and the amount of time they are given to do it in is especially important during transitional times such as growth spurts, downsizing or mergers. Staff will often rally to meet increased demands in the short term, but if the expectations remain high, burnout can occur. Long hours that tax workers and their families, and workplaces that don’t provide staff with adequate resources to do their jobs can contribute to chronic emotional depletion.
Target unfair practices
Bias and favouritism can harm employees’ sense of fairness at work and erode long-term commitment to the organization. Resentment can build, especially when staff are not promoted fairly, interesting projects are not assigned equally and kudos are reserved for particular employees. When workers are not appreciated, acknowledged or recognized for their hard work or innovative ideas, they are placed under emotional strain. Perceiving the workplace to be unfair or unjust can lead to feelings of helplessness and defeat. Companies that ensure fairness and transparency in their interpersonal relationships and work processes tend to fend off job stress and emotional exhaustion.
Deal effectively with workplace toxicity
Environments in which bullying and intimidation are allowed to fester can promote emotional exhaustion. Workers who are either targets of dominating behaviour or witnesses to it can both suffer. Organizations that tolerate disrespect at work risk high turnover, absenteeism and reduced worker engagement. Dealing quickly and decisively with workers who humiliate others, name-call or isolate and ignore others will help prevent emotional fatigue.
Watch for signs of emotional exhaustion
Supervisors and colleagues alike can monitor themselves and others for signs of burnout. Difficulty sleeping, chronic fatigue, continuous physical ailments, nervousness and lethargy may indicate a worker is in trouble. People who previously engaged with customers and co-workers enthusiastically yet now show a lack of connection with other staff or clients may be suffering from emotional strain. Emotionally exhausted people tend to evaluate themselves negatively, feel worthless and take little pleasure in their accomplishments.
It is important to address the root causes of emotional fatigue amongst workers and provide them with help. If the cause of the stress appears to be interpersonal difficulty on the job, work overload or perceived company unfairness, these factors should be ameliorated. A referral to an appropriate EAP may also help, if available.
If a company is experiencing high turnover, thorough exit interviews could highlight a case of emotional exhaustion. By asking direct questions about workload, fairness, transparency and toxicity on the job, companies may discover that they are literally driving workers out.
In the end, Bill’s supervisor noted the technologist’s lower productivity, fatigue, lassitude and disinterest in others at work. He called Bill into his office and asked him how he was doing since the company changes were made. Bill told his supervisor that his energy and interest in work had declined sharply in the last two months. Bill offered to quit, but his supervisor dissuaded him. By recognizing Bill’s efforts during a difficult transition and providing him with access to an assistant when the workload threatened to overload him, Bill’s supervisor retained a valuable employee.
Losing otherwise productive, talented and committed workers to emotional exhaustion can be prevented. Ironically, the most diligent, committed and valued workers can be the most prone to emotional fatigue, making intervening on their behalf, good for the worker and good for the company.
Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.