Emotional rescue: how to stop your employees burning out

This article was contributed by Dr Andreas Liefooghe, Reader in Organizational Psychology, and Dan Vacassin, an alumnus of Birkbeck’s MSc Organizational Behaviour and Director of Indigo Gold.Businessman asleep at his desk on white background

Sometimes it seems as though it’s no longer enough for employees just to turn up for work and do their jobs as well as they can.  Today, many organisations demand varying amounts of what is known as emotional labour, a phenomenon that sits apart from actually doing the job. Emotional labour manifests itself in a number of ways, but here we are referring to a perceived need to ‘Live the brand’ – to strain every sinew in a bid to achieve the cultural utopia envisioned by the leadership team.

This is not healthy. At best, it can leave employees so exhausted by the energy they put into ‘getting their game face on’ that they have little left to do their jobs properly. At worst, we’ve seen it lead to cases of burnout, where the emotional demands placed on individuals have left them no longer able to function.

While many of society’s ills seem nowadays to be subjected to inflated terminology (for instance we no longer seem to have heavy colds, it is always flu) burnout is very real and its effects can be shocking to witness. In our experience, burnout tends to happen not because individuals work hard, but more because they become emotionally immersed in their work, to the detriment of everything else.

This is not to suggest that presenting a strong brand to the customer is a bad thing. Equally, customer-facing employees have a certain responsibility to embody that brand. We are talking instead about a deeper emotional contract demanded of employees, playing to a need to ‘fit in’ which may be a unique human condition.

Alleviating the burden of emotional labour, as with other culture-related issues, must start at the top. Very often, investigating a case of burnout uncovers insecurities among the leadership team, with senior managers finding it hard to judge when an organisation is working at or close to its optimal level and so continue to push relentlessly towards their version of utopia.

As well as the emotional fatigue it causes, the emotional labour around being constantly ‘on message’ can also stifle fresh ideas and creativity, while negating attempts to promote the diversity of the workplace in terms of personality types and behaviours. The whole point of creativity and diversity is that they involve breaking away from perceived notions of the norm; if people feel they must always behave in a certain way in order to get on, then the norm becomes all-pervasive.

We all have a responsibility to learn, to improve and to better ourselves in whatever career we have chosen. So why not let people get on with doing precisely that, instead of focusing on whether they’re sufficiently on message? You might just keep them burning brightly, instead of burning out.

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