Emotional exhaustion

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Emotional exhaustion is a chronic state of physical and emotional depletion that results from excessive job demands and continuous hassles.[1] it describes feeling of being emotionally overextended and exhausted by one's work. It is manifested by both physical fatigue and a sense of feeling psychologically and emotionally "drained". [2]


Most emotional exhaustion research has been guided by Maslach's and Jackson's three-component conceptualization of burnout. This model suggests burnout consists of three interrelated parts: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and diminished personal accomplishment. Depersonalization, also called "dehumanization", refers to a set of callous and insensitive behaviors displayed by a worker toward a client. Diminished personal accomplishment refers to negative evaluations of the self.[3]

Determinants of emotional exhaustion

The level of emotional exhaustion which is experienced by an employee is influenced by a variety of determinants, such as: personal resources, coping strategies, emotional culture, and supervisory regulation of display rules.

Personal resources and emotional exhaustion

Personal resources, such as status, social support, money or shelter, may reduce or prevent an employee's emotional exhaustion.

According to the Conservation of Resources theory (COR), people strive to obtain, retain and protect their personal resources, either instrumental (e.g., money or shelter), social (e.g., social support or status) or psychological (e.g., self-esteem or sense of autonomy). The COR's theory suggest that people must invest resources in order to protect against resource loss, recover from losses, and regain resources. Therefore, those with greater resources are less vulnerable to resource loss and more capable of orchestrating resource gain, whereas, for those with fewer resources, ongoing resource loss may result in a rapid influential loss spiral. [4] [5] [6] [7]

In a field study, those experiencing higher levels of job autonomy (the freedom to take initiative and exercise discretion in decision-making), low task complexity, supervisory support, and the internal locus of control (a tendency to attribute events to one's own control; such as, the tendency to attribute a success to internal causes, like one's ability or effort, rather than external causes, such as good luck), tend to experience lower degrees of emotional exhaustion [8].

Similarly, researchers reveal that even though higher degree of using emotion regulation on the job is related to higher levels of employees' emotional exhaustion, when employees believe that they have autonomy in their job behaviors, emotion regulation, that is otherwise exhausting, is not associated with exhaustion at all [9].

Furthermore, another field study, basing on a sample of a call-center workers in a large telecommunications corporation, indicate that employees who are highly identified with the service work, posses higher levels of self-efficacy (the belief in one's ability to succeed;[10]), and receive social support from their supervisors, are less likely to experience emotional exhaustion[11].

Coping strategies and emotional exhaustion

Researchers suggest that emotional exhaustion may be a result of using inadequate strategies in order to cope with problematic events on the job.

Accordingly, There are empirical evidences that employees, who tend to use more control strategies , which are considered more productive strategies (concerned with addressing the situation; such as direct action and help seeking) tend to experience lower levels of emotional exhaustion than do those who tend to use more escape strategies, which are considered inadequate strategies, (used to avoid problems; such as avoidance and resignation with the problematic situation). [8]

Emotional culture and emotional exhaustion

Regional and national cultures have been shown to have different norms for emotional expressions,[12] and vary in their expectations for regulating and expressing emotions in the workplace.[13] Such differences are part of the emotional culture of those cultures. For example, some cultures are more institutionally-oriented, with strong norms about regulating emotions to fulfill institutional roles and standards, whereas other cultures are more impulsively-oriented that value expressing unregulated emotions.[14]

An example of a culture with a strong institutional-orientation toward emotions is the United States, due to the strong American norm to act positively and hide negative feelings, ("the service with a smile" norm);[15] Whereas, France can be used as an example of a country with a more impulsive-orientation toward emotions.[16]

People within cultures that tend to use an impulsive orientation to understand and evaluate social situations are likely to feel more personal control over their expressions, than people within institutional-oriented cultures, resulting in more of a buffer against strain and emotional exhaustion.[14]

On the basis of those arguments, an organizational research investigated the influence of emotional culture on the degree of emotional exhaustion experienced by employees who work on jobs that include interaction with clients and emotional labor demands. In this study, among employees working at such jobs, those who belonged to more impulsive-oriented culture (France) showed lower degrees of emotional exhaustion, than those who belonged to more institutional-oriented culture (U.S.).[9]

Supervisory regulation of "display rules" and emotional exhaustion

Supervisors are likely to be important definers of interpersonal demands at the job level, given their direct influence on worker's beliefs about high-performance expectations. Moreover, supervisors' impressions of the importance of display rules (the rules about what kind of emotions are allowed to be expressed on the job) influence the employees' impressions of that display rules.[17][18]

Recent study also suggests that employees who hold the same job (e.g., call center representatives) may experience the same "display rules" differently if they work for different supervisors, who vary in the emphasis they place on their subordinates' interpersonal role requirements, and by so, experience different levels of emotional exhaustion. Such that having a supervisor who places greater importance on interpersonal job demands results in greater emotional exhaustion (especially for those subordinates who have low career identity) .[11]

Implications of emotional exhaustion

Researches have linked emotional exhaustion to a plethora of ailments, and a general breakdown in feelings of community.[19] However, a growing body of research has begun to demonstrate that emotional exhaustion can have deleterious consequences for organizations as well;

For example, Cropanzano and her colleagues, in their two field studies, indicate that exhausted employees show lower organizational commitment, lower job performance, less organizational citizenship behaviors (OCB) directed toward the organization (OCBO) and their supervisors (OCBS), and higher turnover intentions. They suggest that emotional exhaustion can been seen as a cost that qualifies the value of any benefits received through employment, and so that an organization, which overworks its employees to the point of emotional exhaustion, may be seen as unfair. [8]

Similarly,longitudinal studies found that exhausted employees show not only lower job performance, but also more absences, and greater likelihood of seeking employment elsewhere (actual voluntary turnover).[20][21]


  1. Wright, T.A. & Cropanzano, R. (1998). Emotional exhaustion as a predictor of job performance and voluntary turnover. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83 (3), 486-493
  2. Zohar, D. (1997). Predicting burnout with a hassle-based measure of role demands. journal of Organizational Behavior, 18(2), 101-115
  3. Maslach, C. (1982). The Burnout: The Cost of Caring. Engelwood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.
    Maslach, C., Jackson, S. E. (1986). The Maslach Burnout Inventory (2nd ed.). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.
    Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (1997). The truth about burnout: How organizations cause personal stress and what to do about it. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. http://eu.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-0787908746.html
  4. Hobfoll, S.E. (1989). Conservation of resources: A new attempt at conceptualizing stress American Psychologist 44 (3),513-524.
  5. Hobfoll, S.E. (2002). Social and psychological resources and adaptation. Review of General Psychology, 6, 307-324.
  6. Hobfoll, S.E. (2001), The influence of culture, community and the nested-self in the stress process: Advancing conservation of resources theory, Applied Psychology: An International Review, 50, 337-421.
  7. Hobfoll, S.E. (1998). Stress, Culture, and Community. New York: Plenum Press.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Ito, J., & Brotheridge, C. (2003), Resources, coping strategies, and emotional exhaustion: A conservation of resources perspective, Journal of Vocational Behavior, 63, 490–509
  9. 9.0 9.1 Grandey, A.A., Fisk, G.M. & Steiner, D.D. (2005), Must "service with a smile" be stressful? The moderate role f personal control for American and French employees, Journal of Applied Psychology, 90 (5), 893-904
  10. see Albert Bandura
  11. 11.0 11.1 Wilk, S.L. & Moynihan, L.M. (2005). Display rule "regulators": The relationship between supervisors and workers emotional exhausion. Academy of Management Journal, 44 (5), 1018-1027.
  12. Ekman, P. (1972). Universals and cultural differences in facial expressions of emotions. In J. Cole (Ed.), Nebraska symposium on motivation 1971 (pp. 207-283). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  13. Cooper, D., Doucet, L., & Pratt, M. (2003, August). I'm not smiling because I like you: Cultural differences in emotional displays at work. Paper presented at the Academy of Management, Seattle, WA.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Gordon, S. L. (1989). Institutional and impulsive orientations in selective appropriating emotions to self. In D. D. Franks & D. McCarthy (Eds.), The sociology of emotions: Original essays and research papers (pp. 115-136). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
  15. Schneider, D.J. (1981). Tactical self-presentations: Toward a broader conception. In J.T. Tedeschi (Ed.), Impression management theory and social psychological research (pp. 23-40). New York: Academic Press.
  16. Hallowell, R., Bowen, D. E., & Knoop, C. I. (2002). Four seasons goes to Paris. Academy of Management Executive, 16(4), 7-24.
  17. Zapf, D. (2002). Emotion work and psychological well-being. A review of the literature and some conceptual considerations. Human Resource Management Review, 12, 237-268.
  18. Diefendorff, J. M., & Richard, E. M. (2003). Antecedents and consequences of emotional display rule perceptions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88, 284-294
  19. Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (1997), The truth about burnout: How organizations cause personal stress and what to do about it, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  20. Grandey,A., Dickter, D. & Sin, H.P. (2004), The customer is not always right: Customer aggression and emotion regulation of service employees, journal of Organizational Behavior, 25(3), 397-418.
  21. Wright, T.A. & Cropanzano, R. (1998). Emotional exhaustion as a predictor of job performance and voluntary turnover. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83 (3), 486-493

Further reading

  • Hendrix, W. H., Robbins, T., Miller, J., & Summers, T. P. (1998). Effects of procedural and distributive justice on factors predictive of turnover. Journal of Social Behavior & Personality, 13(4), 611-632.
  • Kahill, S. (1988). Symptoms of professional burnout: A review of the empirical evidence. Canadian Psychology, 29(3), 284 - 297.
  • Wayne, S. J., L. M. Shore and R. C. Liden. (1997). Perceived organizational support and leader-member exchange: A social exchange perspective. Academy of Management Journal 40, 82-111.

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