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How Workplace Anxiety Fuels Emotional Exhaustion

By Julie McCarthy and John Trougakos

Feelings of anxiety are a pervasive problem in today’s fast-paced work environment: in recent surveys, 41 per cent of workers reported ‘elevated levels’ of workplace tension, and studies show that as many as 80 per cent feel ‘stressed out’.

The bad news for employers? Anxiety related absences are, on average, four times longer than other illnesses or injuries. The scourge of anxiety has been estimated to cost the U.S. economy over $40 billion, annually.

High levels of anxiety are not just expensive for organizations, they have also been found to have negative effects on ethical behaviour, organizational effectiveness, and economic success. Anxiety is also problematic for employees, as it contributes to job dissatisfaction and has detrimental consequences on job performance.

How exactly does anxiety affect job performance? Research in this domain has largely drawn from ‘cognitive interference’ theories, which examine the unwanted and often disturbing thoughts that sometimes intrude upon an individual’s thinking — and subsequently, interfere with their behaviour. While we agree that cognitive interference is a key aspect of the anxiety-performance dynamic, we also believe that there is more to it.

Let’s take a step back and look at the concept of ‘job performance’ itself, which requires executing multiple tasks over a sustained period of time. As such, high levels of job performance are dependent upon the protection and facilitation of two types of resources: cognitive resources and personal resources. In addition to cognitive interference — which addresses cognitive resources — another key factor in the relation between anxiety and job performance involves a personal resource: emotional exhaustion.

Emotional exhaustion is a chronic state of physical and emotional depletion that results from excessive job and/or personal demands and continuous stress. It describes a feeling of being emotionally overextended and thereby exhausted by one’s work. As anxiety goes up, performance goes down.

Kent State University Professor Steven Hobfoll’s Conservation of Resources Theory (COR) provides an excellent framework for detailing the processes leading to, and the consequences of, emotional exhaustion. The theory holds that individuals naturally strive to protect and build resources such as time and energy, and that doing so is important, because ‘resource drain’ leads to emotional exhaustion.

A key premise of the theory — as well as other research focusing on emotional exhaustion — is that the continual depletion of personal resources will result in burnout symptoms, including emotional exhaustion.

In order to mitigate the effects associated with resource loss, people often call upon resources that are available to them from the environment. We believe that one such resource — social support — is particularly critical in this regard. That’s because social support can act to offset resource drain and its corresponding negative consequences in many ways, such as broadening one’s pool of available resources and promoting positive coping skills. Combined, these ‘social support functions’ can serve to replenish an individual’s resource pool, resulting in ‘positive gain spirals’ that offset the effects of emotional exhaustion and promote better performance.

Social support is particularly important in a work context, because individuals with whom employees interact regularly can provide both material and socio-emotional resources that aid them in their daily activities.

Our Research

To test our predictions, we, along with our co-author Bonnie Cheng of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, conducted a field study with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Given regular interactions with violent offenders, crime scenes, accident victims and other demands, the policing environment is characterized by high degrees of stress. This places employees at a significantly higher risk of physical and mental health effects than the general population, and not surprisingly, workplace anxiety is a common phenomenon in policing organizations.

Participants in our study included police officers, their supervisors, and their peers. At the beginning, officers completed a measure of workplace anxiety. Three months later, they completed measures of emotional exhaustion and cognitive interference, and six weeks after that their supervisors completed job performance and other measures. Workplace anxiety was assessed with eight items modified from the Performance Anxiety Scale developed by one of the authors [Julie McCarthy] and Richard Goffin.

We hypothesized that emotional exhaustion would mediate the relation between workplace anxiety and job performance, while accounting for cognitive interference. As predicted, workplace anxiety demonstrated a significant positive relation with emotional exhaustion, which in turn demonstrated a significant negative effect on job performance.

Our second set of hypotheses focused on the moderating roles of relationships with co-workers and relationships with supervisors/leaders. Our findings showed that relationships with coworkers (but not with supervisors or leaders) significantly moderate the relation between workplace anxiety and emotional exhaustion. Relationships with supervisors/leaders but not coworkers significantly moderate the relation between emotional exhaustion and job performance.

Emotional exhaustion is an important mechanism underlying the relation between workplace anxiety and performance. Social exchange can mitigate the harmful effects of workplace anxiety, such that the strength of co-worker relations moderate the association between anxiety and emotional exhaustion, and the strength of leader relations moderate the association between emotional exhaustion and job performance.

Thus, continuously working to improve relationships between co-workers and between employees and supervisors is paramount. Separate research suggests that the key to developing these strong relations is very simple: open communication.

Julie McCarthy is an Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour & HR Management at the Rotman School of Management. John Trougakos is also an Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour & HR Management at the Rotman School. They are the co-authors, along with Bonnie Hayden Cheng of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, of “Are Anxious Workers Less Productive Workers? It Depends on the Quality of Social Exchange.” This paper recently appeared in the Journal of Applied Psychology. This article appeared in the Winter 2016 issue. Published by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Rotman Management explores themes of interest to leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs. To subscribe:

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