Emotional Exhaustion is a Threat All Leaders are Facing

Managers need to deal with Employees' Emotional Exhaustion

You may never have heard the term emotional exhaustion before, but if you are a leader, you need to be aware.

If you’re in a leadership position at any level, it’s been a rough few months. Not only have you had to continually assess, adapt, adjust, predict, monitor, communicate, empathize, problem-solve then start all over again, you’ve had to help your team do the same. It’s like a giant, never-ending game of whack-a-mole. Well, I’ve got some bad news and some good news for you.

First, the Bad News

Whenever I ask my wife if she wants the good news or the bad news first, she always opts to start with the bad news, so I’ll follow the same format here.

The bad news is that, on top of everything else you’re dealing with, you’re probably facing a very serious problem that you’re not even aware of yet.  it is highly likely that each of your employees is currently experiencing some degree of what is referred to as emotional exhaustion

Emotional exhaustion is created when the brain perceives an ongoing threat over an extended period of time, and the switch for its internal fight-or-flight mechanism isn’t getting turned off.  When this happens, our brains and bodies are eventually depleted of adaptive energy, inhibiting our ability to function. Psychologist Hans Selye, “the father of stress research,” called it General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS).  You may know it by the more colloquial term — burnout.

It’s serious, and ignoring it is a bad idea

The conditions for emotional exhaustion have been in play for your employees — and everyone else for that matter — for months now, with our brains being bombarded by relentless, continuous negative stimuli. I’ll be going into more detail on the physiology of emotional exhaustion over the next few weeks, but for now, suffice it to say that it is real, it is serious and if ignored will insidiously and increasingly damage your team and your organization. Thinking of it as just a ‘weakness’ on someone’s part, or just telling someone to “suck it up and deal with it,” would be a Big Mistake.

The negative impact on customer service, productivity  and employee health is profound

Research has shown that emotional exhaustion has a dramatic negative effect on your employees’ ability to learn and to adapt. Studies have also pointed to emotionally exhausted employees as caring less about customers — and developing a number of other serious physical and emotional issues.

Oh, and as if that weren’t enough, they’re also more likely to be thinking of quitting.

The Good News

The good news is that, as a leader, there are immediate concrete steps you can, and should, take to help mitigate the factors that are contributing to emotional exhaustion, and I’ll be outlining them in this and subsequent articles in the weeks to come.

Adopting new practices is better than winging it.

One very important thing to keep in mind before we begin is the piece of wisdom popularized by Marshall Goldsmith: “What got you here won’t get you there.”  Those leadership practices you’ve learned for improving engagement, collaboration and productivity are great, but they aren’t designed to combat emotional exhaustion.  As a leader, you have to adopt some new practices. Just trying to wing it based on your experience isn’t a good idea.

The first step is to create a Safe Zone

The first thing you want to do is take steps to eliminate or minimize negative stimuli from the workplace — whether your employees are working remotely or in a live environment. Stopping the stimuli interrupts the cycle that is feeding emotional exhaustion, and give brains and bodies an opportunity to recover. You can make the workplace, in essence, a welcome safe zone.

I have seen the impact of this firsthand in the first business I owned — a small chain of toy stores. The mandate in them was to create a fun environment for kids so that they would want to return. It worked, but I was always struck by how many employees actually looked forward to coming to work too.

Most of them were either university students or parents of young children. For them, it turned out, the idea of playing and being around happy kids was a welcome respite from the pressures at home and school. “You don’t understand,” one employee once told me, “This is my happy place. Getting paid is just a bonus!”

In my next installment, I will outline some specific steps you can start taking to creating a safe zone. In the meantime, I encourage you to start thinking about your specific workplace, and what initial steps you might be able to take to eliminate negative stimuli.

“Give your people a cause they can believe in, give them the tools to succeed, then stand back and watch”

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