Is job burnout unpredictable? And should we be resigned to it happening? Research by Professor Xuhong Li, School of Management Fudan University, and her colleagues, uses Emotional Intelligence and ERA – the ability to control our emotions – to see if job burnout is inescapable, and how to effectively prevent it occurring.
How Can Emotional Intelligence Help Tackle Job Burnout? by CoBS Editor Félix Dubois-Aubecq. Related research: Managing Job Burnout: The Effects of Emotion-Regulation Ability, Emotional Labor, and Positive and Negative Affect at Work, International Journal of Stress Management, 2019, Vol. 26, No. 3, 315–320, 1072-5245/19/$12.00 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/str0000101
Is work killing us slowly? Is burnout one of – if not the main – evil of our century? Fact is, burnout is a subject that is regularly raised in the press, the media and, increasingly, in politics. In January, the World Economic Forum even devoted a series of discussions to this issue.
Previous research has regularly tackled the issue of burnout in order to determine the contours of this phenomenon and its causes. Organizational psychology, for example, has tried to understand how fatigue at work is a factor, or to what extent burnouts are linked to other troubles such as depression, poor work performance, and health problems.
These are questions that are not just a matter of theoretical reflection and discussion, but that are rooted in a reality that seems to be increasingly shared by the working population. A recent study by Asana – a software and data management company headquartered in San Francisco – found that 70% of 10,000 people surveyed worldwide had experienced some form of burnout in 2020. And while this feeling is not entirely new, it seems to be increasingly prevalent among the younger generation. Based on a McKinsey study, for instance, 25% of Generation Zs have experienced burnout, compared to 13% of millennials, 13% of Generation X and 8% of baby boomers.
In short, we could say that our world is becoming increasingly depressed. Yet, despite the prevalence of burnout in our society, it remains a phenomenon that is still difficult to understand. In particular, its relationship with emotional intelligence (EI) and emotion-regulation ability (ERA) – the ability to exert control over one’s own emotional state – has never been well documented. In this light, Fudan Prof. Xu-Hong Li and her fellow researchers aim at clarifying the relationship between EI and burnout and exploring the direct and incidental effects of ERA on job burnout.
The ability to manage your emotions – and how to better manage burnouts
First of all, what is job burnout? Tens of definitions have accumulated around this phenomenon, characterising a many-sided notion that is still difficult to define. As such, Prof. Li and her colleagues restrict burnout to the world of work as a syndrome of job-related fatigue and exhaustion.
On the other hand, among other things, emotional intelligence is often associated with a better ability to control one’s emotions. Composed of four pillars – perception, facilitation, understanding, and regulation – research has shown the latter – regulation ability – to be a direct predictor of employees’ performance at work. In other words, higher emotional intelligence in the area of emotional regulation skills is linked to better performance at work.
The influence of employees’ ability to manage their own emotions on job burnout occurring differs across job types and positions.
The reasons for this can be easily understood. Emotion-regulation ability (ERA) has been identified as a way to avoid burnout, especially in work situations where employees lack the resources to manage relationships and emotions. Studies had already shown that people associated with high ERA benefit from a larger number of ways to maintain positive emotions and reduce or change negative ones in both themselves and in other people.
On the one hand, this ability could be said to help employees acquire the necessary emotions to deal with situations requiring strong emotion management. On the other hand, it could give them a better ability to manage social relationships through generating less stress. Using a panel of 343 MBA alumni from top-tier Chinese universities, Prof. Li and her colleagues found that emotion regulation ability indeed has direct and incidental effects on the occurrence of burnouts, but mainly in one category of work: emotional labour – meaning jobs associated with high emotional demands. On the contrary, the effect of ERA is much less marked when the emotional load is less strong.
What a state you’re in – the case of emotional labour
The influence of employees’ ability to manage their own emotions on job burnout occurring is not the same across job types and positions. In fact, the relationship between the two is dependent on the degree of emotional labour the employee is subject to – for example, where workers must deal with and display appropriate emotions to their coworkers, managers, and customers. As such, the ability to manage our emotions is most effective when the demand to do so is highest – in jobs that call for high levels of listening, understanding, self-control, conflict-avoidance and diplomacy.
So why does ERA lead to better management and prevention of burnout? One explanation lies in the relationship between emotional intelligence and an employee’s positive and negative emotional states experienced at work. A positive state, for example, could be enthusiasm, commitment and alertness, whereas negative emotional states could include anxiety and sadness. The logic is that an employee’s emotional state should lead to a more positive or less positive experience – and the more positive emotions they feel, the more likely they are to assess their experience positively and the less likely they are to experience job burnout.
Emotional intelligence tends to be linked to positive emotional states. Previous research has already shown that it reduces distress at work and enables people to maintain a good mood, even in the face of challenging situations.
Prof. Li’s findings point out that positive emotional states do indeed contribute to a reduction in burnout and is related to ERA, but does not lead to concrete conclusions regarding its effect on negative emotional states. However, the research results imply that employees with high emotional intelligence are more likely to generate good experiences than try to prevent negative emotional experiences.
What’s in it for the organisation?
All in all, Prof. Li’s research confirms that emotional intelligence, through ERA – the ability to control your own emotions – has both direct and indirect effects on the prevention of job burnout and, at the end of the day, on work performance.
So what’s in it for the organisation? In particular, employing EI and ERA enable companies and managers to identify high-risk situations in terms of developing job burnouts, especially in pinpointing tasks that carry a heavy degree of self-control, conflict-avoidance and diplomacy. Companies would also be wise to plan for training that could help employees develop their emotion-regulation ability – particularly in jobs involving a high emotional load, such as sales, service and care jobs requiring regular contact with customers. Not forgetting those in managerial positions.
So is work killing us slowly? And could burnout be called the evil of our century? By making good use of emotional intelligence and its 4 pillars – perception, facilitation, understanding, and control – and identifying upstream which jobs are most likely to be affected by the threat of burnout, the world of work might just become all that more liveable. And enjoyable.
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