You get to the office but don’t start work. You’re struggling through chronic head, neck and backaches. You’ve become disillusioned about your place at the company, or the impact you’re having on the team. You’re tired, cranky and just don’t care anymore. You’re suffering from work burnout.
Two recent studies on emotional exhaustion and burnout at work offer some insight into why you might be feeling lackluster about your job. One suggests that after-hours emails contribute to a state of perpetual alertness, preventing employees from truly recovering from the work day. The other proposes that a fundamental mismatch between unconscious needs and workplace duties may be causing workers undue stress.
Taken together, both studies examine the effects that chronic emotional arousal can have on workers, whether it be a never-ending sense of urgency about emails or a constant need to try to reconcile their implicit needs with work duties. If people can’t return to baseline levels of calm and/or feelings of fulfillment, chronic heightened emotions could lead to physical symptoms like pain, fatigue and an increased heart rate.
The late night email theory: You’re always on
The first study, presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management, collected data from 297 working adults and found a link between emailing after works hours and negative emotion, leading to feelings of “burnout” and poorer work-family balance. The researchers, from Lehigh University, Virginia Tech and Colorado State University, concluded that after-hours work emailing is a stressor alongside things like a high workload, conflicts with colleagues and deadlines. While it may not take a lot of time to reply to after-work emails, the expectation that employees should respond online after business hours prevents employees from fully unplugging from their day, which keeps them from restoring and renewing their energy at night.
“If an organization perpetuates the ‘always on’ culture, it may prevent employees from fully disengaging from work, eventually leading to chronic stress,” explained Lehigh University professor and study co-author Liuba Belkin in a statement.
The mismatch theory: Your emotional needs are not being met
The second study, published in the journal Frontiers, surveyed 97 online participants with questions to get to the heart their unconscious needs. Are they individually motivated to take responsibility for others, maintain discipline and negotiate to feel powerful — the “power motive” ― or do they need to cultivate positive personal relationships in order to feel a sense of trust and belonging — the “affiliation motive?” The more of a mismatch the participants had between their unconscious needs and the demands of their jobs, the more at risk they were of burnout. Specifically, people whose “power motives” were unfulfilled at work had a higher risk of physical symptoms like headache, chest pain and shortness of breath, while those with an unfulfilled “affiliation motive” were more at risk of burnout, or emotional exhaustion.
“Matching employees’ motivational needs to their daily activities at work might be the way forward,” said co-author Beate Schulze, a senior researcher at the Department of Social and Occupational Medicine of the University of Leipzig in a statement. “This may also help to address growing concerns about employee mental health, since burnout is essentially an erosion of motivation.”
What cases of workplace burnout have in common
While the two studies propose two different pathways to burnout, clinical psychologist Vincent Passarelli, who consults with companies on employee wellness programs, points out that they both describe continuous and progressive states of heightened emotional and physical arousal. Such intense and prolonged physiological periods of being alert and active to stimuli may produce a physical response in the body like an increased heart rate, increased breathing rate, and the release of stress hormones.
In the short term, this chronic arousal could create anxiety, hyper vigilance, restlessness, and a sense of urgency. But if these heightened states don’t return back to normal over time, that could explain why high blood pressure, heart disease and depression are linked to burnout and emotional exhaustion.
“Whether it is being on call to respond to after-hour emails or finding a way to suppress your thoughts and feelings at a job where there is a notable mismatch, constant states of arousal are required to maintain both,” Passarelli explained. “Despite the negative impact this has over the long term, one’s mind and body are adapting more to what’s needed in the moment to persevere, and less to what’s most healthy.