Editor's note: The following is a contributed piece by Cassie Batz, human capital management research assistant at SAP SuccessFactors.
Healthy, energetic and focused employees are both more effective and more engaged than tired, stressed and distracted employees. Much of the onus lies on the employee to maintain and improve personal well-being by eating healthy foods, being active and getting enough sleep each night, but the responsibility isn't for employees to bear alone. It is also the responsibility of the organization to create a work environment that supports well-being.
This has led many people to wonder exactly how organizations and leaders can help to improve employee well-being. A recent study that appeared in scientific journal Work and Stress suggests that leaders play a critical role in improving their employees’ well-being by decreasing emotional exhaustion — a key component of burnout experienced by 77% of U.S. employees.
Emotional exhaustion is something most of us have experienced at one point or another to some degree. It is a depletion of energy and the wish that we did not have to go back to the dreaded grind of work the next day. Despite feeling drained, a person experiencing emotional exhaustion will often find it hard to sleep. The resulting insomnia leaves their mind unable to perform even basic functions like concentrating on tasks and remembering information. If experienced long enough, physical symptoms may emerge such as headaches, chest pain, heart palpitations and shortness of breath, as well as serious psychological health issues like anxiety and depression.
Emotional exhaustion is unpleasant for an individual and important to address for that reason alone. However, emotionally exhausted employees are also a serious detriment to the functioning of an organization. A paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology reports that emotionally exhausted employees are less committed to their organizations, perform worse, engage in fewer helpful behaviors for their supervisors and the organization as a whole, are more likely to report looking for employment elsewhere, and thus are more likely to quit.
Despite the negative repercussions for both the individual and the organization, 70% of employees report that their organizations are not doing enough to prevent emotional exhaustion and the subsequent burnout it creates. So how can an organization seek to reduce the experience of burnout and emotional exhaustion more specifically?
According to the authors of the paper in Work and Stress, leaders who focus on providing three specific work ‘resources’ tend to have the least emotionally exhausted employees:
#1: Role clarity: What do you want me to do?
An employee should never be left wondering what they are supposed to be doing when they get to work every morning. It is critical for leaders to set clear and well-defined expectations for their employees in terms of what their work role entails. This can include the tasks at hand, the time frames, the outputs or really anything relating to defining the employee’s role and responsibilities.
#2: Predictability: How is what you want me to do changing from what I was doing before?
Our world is constantly changing, and work — including role responsibilities — is not immune to this. Leaders must ensure that, when changes arise in the responsibilities of an employee, these changes are communicated clearly and in a timely manner. If not, an employee may be left to feel powerless and overwhelmed. Employees can adapt and succeed when changes are communicated well as it enables them to feel a sense of control and manageability of the tasks — aka a "can-do attitude" when detours arise.
#3: Meaningfulness of work: Why does it matter?
Employees making the effort to wake up, get out to bed and go to work every day want to understand the greater purpose beyond a paycheck. Using their broader knowledge base of organizational goals and strategy, a leader can illuminate this purpose, or meaning, to their team by delegating tasks that are challenging, interesting and important to the larger goals of the organization. While some menial tasks may be a necessary part of a job, the majority of a person’s role should be defined in terms of its bigger purpose in the grand scheme of things whether that be for the organization or even society as a whole.
When leaders provide these resources to their employees, it is less likely that employees will experience emotional exhaustion, thus improving their well-being.
If organizations care about improving the wellness of their employees — which they should — then they must play their part in accomplishing this goal. The solution to employee well-being will not come from merely providing employees with greater resources and training to help themselves. It also depends as much on leaders creating a supportive work environment that minimizes the stress and emotional exhaustion caused by role uncertainty, ambiguity and meaninglessness.