Study: Emotional Exhaustion In Workplace Both Helped, Hurt By Boss’ Support

NORWICH, England— Balancing your job and your emotions simultaneously can feel like a juggling act, especially when you’re experiencing emotional exhaustion at the workplace. How a person copes matters, and as a recent study finds, one’s boss can play a vital role in whether an employee makes the wise choice to turn to his or her social support system for help.

Researchers at the University of East Anglia recruited 500 workers across three studies hosted in Portugal and the United States, assessing how emotions were dealt with in the workplace by the participants and their bosses. The participants came from numerous fields and responded to questionnaires measuring for levels of emotional exhaustion and happiness. They were also polled on what’s known as “perceived supervisor support” (PSS), defined as a worker’s perception of how supportive, caring, and appreciative their boss is towards them.

Office worker sitting at sunny desk
An employer’s support for an employee suffering from emotional exhaustion may actually get in the way of the worker’s plans to reach out to others for help, a recent study finds.

Interestingly, the team found that low PSS actually stimulated an emotionally exhausted employee’s mood when it came to putting together an action plan and looking for social support. That means the employee would be more likely to turn to outside resources — advice from others, information or support, etc. In return, happiness is boosted.

Prior to their research, it was highlighted in previous studies that emotional exhaustion can lead to depression and poorer workplace performance, but could be avoided with stronger PSS. This latest experiment is among the first that show how PSS could actually keep a worker from finding appropriate avenues for much needed help.

“It is important to note that it is not emotional exhaustion per se, but rather how people cope with it, that is beneficial for individuals,” says co-author Dr. Carlos Ferreira Peralta, a lecturer in organizational behavior for the university’s business school, in a press release. “Our findings suggest that the activities people engage in have a key role in building happiness from an internally stressful experience and that emotional exhaustion can have a silver lining.”

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The takeaway for employers is that while PSS can potentially prevent emotional exhaustion before it begins, it may be safer for a supervisor to only ramp up support of a noticeably struggling worker if prompted by the exhausted individual.

“Otherwise, the employee may not engage or delay the engagement in coping activities that can enhance their happiness,” says Peralta. “This is particularly relevant as caring supervisors might be tempted to increase the support they provide when an employee is showing signals of emotional exhaustion.”

That’s because, as the study found, suddenly jumping in to help might stop the worker from putting together the aforementioned “action plan” to happier, greener pastures. And when that happens, the employer’s support may only make things worse for everyone.

“This research contributes to a greater understanding of whether benefits can be gained by individuals as they cope with emotional exhaustion. The findings help clarify the role of social support in dealing with and becoming happy after emotional exhaustion,” Peralta concludes.

The study’s findings were published online in the journal Work & Stress.

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