How to Function When You Are Emotionally Exhausted
Emotional exhaustion from one’s job is more common than you might think. No matter if you are a service worker or you work in an office, if you feel you have to act a certain way at work, you are performing emotional labor.¹ This labor causes “emotional exhaustion,” or a state of being emotionally drained.² Some symptoms of emotional exhaustion are feeling fatigued, frustrated, or used up from the work you do.³ If you feel these symptoms, you’re not alone. But, there are ways that are proven to reduce and prevent emotional exhaustion.
If you are acting more cheerful or confident than you are while at work, you may be “surface acting.” This is when you project an emotion that isn’t how you actually feel inside.⁴ This can often feel inauthentic and at odds with one’s sense of self.⁵ The emotional strain caused by surface acting can cause emotional exhaustion.¹ But if you don’t feel cheerful or confident, how can you not surface act?
It turns out that emotion is more malleable than one might think. You can regulate your own emotions, and by doing so, express positive emotion in a more sincere way.⁴ This method is called “deep acting.”⁴ It is easy to learn how, and it is proven to decrease emotional exhaustion.⁴ However, this was only true for participants with a positive psychological state.⁴ So when you feel that you are faking emotions, try to focus on the positive aspects of your interactions. You may start to feel the emotions you present.
When you are emotionally exhausted, social support can be a coping mechanism.⁶ Unfortunately, a lack of social support can have far-reaching consequences. In a study of workplace ostracism, researchers found that a lack of social support causes emotional exhaustion. Also, when a person doesn't receive support at work, the negative effects spill over to their family life.² It can cause a cycle of negativity where a person then feels exhausted from their home life.² Therefore, workplace social support is crucial to preventing emotional exhaustion.
You cannot make people support you. However, you can help foster a healthy work environment. A supportive work environment reduces emotional exhaustion and work-related anxiety.⁶ If you support your coworkers, you contribute to creating such an environment. If you take the step to support others, you may increase everyone’s well-being, including your own.
The less control you have in your job, the more emotional labor you perform. In a study by Huang and colleagues, employees with less control were more emotionally exhausted.⁷ Also, emotional exhaustion from a lack of control caused mental health problems.⁷ Having flexibility in a job reduces emotional exhaustion.⁸ But not all jobs are flexible, and you may not be able to increase your level of control in your job. So what can you change to prevent emotional exhaustion?
It turns out that control is both external and internal. This means you can have an “internal locus of control,” or the belief that outcomes are based on what we do.⁹ An internal locus of control is associated with being less emotionally exhausted.¹⁰ And luckily, it is a skill you can develop. Over time, an outlook of control could reduce your emotional exhaustion and improve your mental health.
The Bottom Line
If you feel emotional exhaustion from your work, you’re not alone. There are many reasons your work may take a particularly emotional toll. Luckily, there are ways to reduce the burden. If you can identify the source of your emotional exhaustion, it will be much easier to work through. Employee mental health problems are common, and only organizational changes will reduce the issue. But for now, there are steps you can take to improve your own mental health.
1. Huppertz, A. V., Hülsheger, U. R., De Calheiros Velozo, J., & Schreurs, B. H. (2020). Why do emotional labor strategies differentially predict exhaustion? Comparing psychological effort, authenticity, and relational mechanisms. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 25(3), 214–226. https://doi.org/10.1037/ocp0000179
2. Thompson, M. J., Carlson, D. S., Kacmar, K. M., & Vogel, R. M. (2020). The cost of being ignored: Emotional exhaustion in the work and family domains. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(2), 186–195. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000433
3. Sessions, H., Nahrgang, J. D., Newton, D. W., & Chamberlin, M. (2020). I’m tired of listening: The effects of supervisor appraisals of group voice on supervisor emotional exhaustion and performance. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(6), 619–636. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000455
4. Yin, H., Wang, W., Huang, S., & Li, H. (2016). Psychological capital, emotional labor and exhaustion: examining mediating and moderating models. Current Psychology (New Brunswick, N.J.), 37(1), 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-016-9518-z
5. Yagil, D. (2020). Positive framing of surface acting: The mitigating effect of self-serving attributions on sense of inauthenticity and emotional exhaustion. International Journal of Stress Management, 27(3), 217–225. https://doi.org/10.1037/str0000148
6. Zhang, H., Tang, L., Ye, Z., Zou, P., Shao, J., Wu, M., Zhang, Q., Qiao, G., & Mu, S. (2020). The role of social support and emotional exhaustion in the association between work-family conflict and anxiety symptoms among female medical staff: a moderated mediation model. BMC Psychiatry, 20(1), 266. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-020-02673-2
7. Huang, Y.-H., Du, P.-I., Chen, C.-H., Yang, C.-A., & Huang, I.-C. (2011). Mediating effects of emotional exhaustion on the relationship between job demand–control model and mental health. Stress and Health : Journal of the International Society for the Investigation of Stress, 27(2), e94-109. https://doi.org/10.1002/smi.1340
8. Guerrero, S., Bentein, K., & Garcia-Falières, A. (2020). Countering the effects of occupational stigma on emotional exhaustion and absences with idiosyncratic deals. International Journal of Stress Management. https://doi.org/10.1037/str0000215
9. Sagone, E., & Caroli, M. E. D. (2014). Locus of Control and Academic Self-efficacy in University Students: The Effects of Self-concepts. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 114, 222–228. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2013.12.689
10. Partlak Günüşen, N., Ustün, B., & Erdem, S. (2014). Work stress and emotional exhaustion in nurses: the mediating role of internal locus of control. Research and Theory for Nursing Practice, 28(3), 260–268. https://doi.org/10.1891/1541-65220.127.116.110