Looking into the topic of emotional exhaustion and burnout at work, is useful in understanding stress processes in organisations of all types.
Research on the burnout of employees began as a result of work conducted on emotion and arousal, and the way people manage that arousal.
More recently, burnout has been considered a type of stress, characterised as a chronic emotional response pattern to stressful work conditions, and the effort required to manage the demands and tensions of high levels of contact with other people.
Rather than being unique to the health care professional as once thought, emotional strain is inherent in any occupation that involves working with people.
Burnout has been defined as consisting of three aspects:
- The emotional exhaustion aspect is experienced first, and involves a person feeling emotionally depleted and exhausted by their work.
- Depersonalisation then develops, where the worker has negative attitudes and feelings about clients or customers.
- The third aspect is a reduced sense of personal accomplishment, which is the tendency to evaluate oneself negatively, particularly in relation to how one associates with clients, customers, and other staff members.
Burnout impacts not only on the wellbeing of staff, but their families and friends, as well as the organisation.
How Burnout Affects Health & Wellbeing
The emotional exhaustion aspect of burnout is associated with somatic complaints, depression, and psychological and physiological strain. These complaints include a deterioration of mental health, characterised by lowered self-esteem, and increased irritability, helplessness and anxiety.
Physical health symptoms include fatigue, insomnia, headaches, chest pains, gastrointestinal disturbances, and general aches and pains.
Burn Out in Service Industries
The consequences of burnout in workers can lead to negative attitudes towards themselves and others, often triggering a change in the nature and frequency of interactions with others at work, and the tendency to withdraw from communicating with people. These negative attitudes not only include higher levels of dissatisfaction with the job itself, but also with life satisfaction.
There are a number of serious and expensive organisational consequences of employees suffering burnout, including:
- increases in turnover;
- absenteeism; and
- lower quality of job performance.
The impact on organisational productivity is especially important in service industries, where management must depend heavily on service staff for customer satisfaction and retention. Research has shown that service jobs with a high degree of customer interaction have a higher level of burnout; it develops when employee resources are depleted at a rate that exceeds replenishment.
In any service industry, the employee emotions need to be managed in order to meet the displayed rules of the particular organisation. Such management of emotions involves emotional labour, where staff members are required to express the emotion a customer or client expects as part of their duties. Such emotional control is required regardless of the worker’s own emotional state, or concerns or distressing events, both internal or external, as they arise.
Emotional Regulation at Work
Emotion regulation occurs at two intervening points.
The first point occurs as a precursor to the generation of the emotion. Here the person makes an attempt to regulate the precursors of the emotion, such as the situation, the concern, for example, before it is generated. This means that an employee can regulate how a situation, a client or a concern is perceived.
More often though, employees are confronted with situations and behaviours which trigger automatic negative emotional reactions. Additionally, events that are perceived to be threatening or adverse, produce stronger subjective feelings of emotion and trigger more complex cognitive analysis than positive or neutral events. Thus, negative events tax resources at every level of responding.
The second intervention point of emotion regulation occurs once an emotion is generated.
When staff members are confronted with an upsetting situation and resulting emotion, they are required to manipulate how they express that emotional response at work by modifying the observable signs of emotions. This may be achieved by enhancing, faking or suppressing emotions to modify the unwanted emotional expression. This is called surface acting or response focused emotion regulation. For example, an employee may smile while feeling upset or angry with a demanding customer.
Thus, emotional labour can be functional under performance conditions. However, the management of emotions can have detrimental outcomes for any person working in health care or community and customer service and seriously impact on their wellbeing.
How Emotional Exhaustion Occurs
In fact, the bigger the emotional gap or emotional conflict between an employee’s feelings and role expectations, the more effort is required to bridge it.
There is also a cumulative effect on stress and wellbeing. Consequently, when employees are confronted with a situation that generates a negative emotional response, like demanding or distressed people, emotional labour is required to suppress their negative emotions so they display acceptable expressions suitable to their delivery at work.
As demands of the work environment continue, resources gradually wear away over time and become depleted. Employees can therefore develop emotional exhaustion, an accompanying negative attitude and eventually burnout. Accompanying this increasing level of exhaustion is a sense of dis-empowerment, and reduced commitment to their organisation.
Please make an appointment to see me if you are suffering any of the symptoms discussed.
Author: Dr Jan Philamon, PhD, BA (Hons) Psychology, C Teach, JP (Qual) Qld, MAPS.
As a registered teacher and psychologist, Dr Jan Philamon has a wealth of experience with children, however she enjoys helping individuals and couples at any stage of life. Jan aims to help people to be the best they can be and find success: improved wellbeing, gaining a sense of empowerment that allows them to actively problem solve and manage obstacles constructively, as well as positively plan and achieve their personal and career goals.
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