Emotional exhaustion: a leading indicator of burnout

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The modern world operates in such a way that we all face a torrent of stressors throughout the day, at work and outside of work. Unfortunately, this means some of us live in a constant state of stress, which can lead to emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion. Emotional exhaustion is one of the most invisible and insidious of the three states of exhaustion, and is considered one of the leading indicators of imminent burnout. So how can we identify it and deal with it?

The invisible enemy

A person suffering from emotional exhaustion will often be unable to articulate how they are feeling, because there never seems to be a central issue to solve. Emotional exhaustion creeps into their lives and can poison everything they hold dear; from their performance at their jobs — studies found “​​a significant inverse correlation between emotional exhaustion and the level of professional engagement” — and to the relationships in their personal lives — according to research, “symptoms might not be completely independent from individuals’ daily lives outside work.”

The term “emotional exhaustion” describes an overwhelming depletion of a person’s emotional capacity, usually due to stress from the work environment. Do you feel trapped in your current work situation? Are you unmotivated and apathetic towards projects and deadlines? You may be dealing with emotional exhaustion.

It was first coined by Christina Maslach in 1982 as part of her definition of burnout. Maslach believed that the feelings of being “drained” or “hopeless” were not meaningless complaints, but were actually indications that something far more harmful was at play.

She created the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) to gauge how susceptible individuals are to burnout and to help understand the “emotional fragility” of employees in high-pressure jobs. Since then, her questionnaire has been used by many companies to monitor their employee’s mental and emotional health.

The most tell-tale sign of emotional exhaustion is the growing feeling of being emotionally drained due to constant stress, but it does show up in other ways. These symptoms often can seem contradictory. For instance, how can you feel tired but have difficulty sleeping? How can something make you angry when you don’t care about it in the first place? The key symptoms of emotional exhaustion are:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability 
  • Trouble with concentration
  • Increased apathy or cynicism

Emotional exhaustion slowly chips away at our ability to cope with stress and it creates noticeable negative side effects if not dealt with.

How to deal with emotional exhaustion

Stress will always be a factor in our lives; we will always need to deal with its pressure. That’s why we need to find sustainable coping mechanisms to help us alleviate its pressure and to avoid the worst symptoms of emotional exhaustion. Luckily, there are simple strategies you can apply whenever you start feeling emotionally drained.

  1. Get some sleep. Our bodies were not meant to be in a constant state of stress, and this continuous tension can have a negative impact on how we recover at night. Your body and brain reset themselves when you sleep. It sounds very obvious and  easy to do: get into bed, roll up the covers, fall asleep for eight hours, wake up. Except that we rarely just get into bed and fall asleep. There are projects, deadlines, colleagues, meetings, emails, family responsibilities that all seem to clash and clutter our lives. By improving your sleeping habits — putting down your phone before bed, not consuming caffeine in the evening — you will drastically improve your chances of dealing with the emotionally exhausting effects of stress.
  2. Check in with yourself. In order to better arm yourself against emotional exhaustion, make space for self-reflection. Ask yourself: Is there pressure at work at the moment? Do I feel motivated to start your day? How energetic do I feel? Am I feeling focussed and prepared? What am I dealing with outside of work? Taking up a journaling habit can do wonders to manage the early symptoms of emotional exhaustion.
  3. Take a break. Just as positive momentum is difficult to build; negative momentum is hard to stop. Taking a pause to recharge, relax, and rethink our goals and our relationship with work can help us prevent emotional exhaustion from turning into full-blown burnout.

Monitor your emotional health and take these few simple steps to improve your ability to handle stress. You will find that you are not only more focused and more performant, but your overall mental health will improve. By actively preventing emotional exhaustion, you will be tapping into a more productive and stable version of yourself.