Seeking social support when exhausted increases happiness

The process of working through emotional exhaustion can increase levels of happiness in some people, according to new research conducted by the University of East Anglia.

Emotional exhaustion in employees can cause a multitude of negative effects, noted the study, including depression, higher levels of worker incivility and poorer work performance.

For the study, researchers focused on the role of supervisors in employee emotional exhaustion, measuring how “perceived supervisor support”—or a supervisor’s level of attentiveness, respect and supportiveness of his or her workers—can impact an employee’s methods of handling exhaustion.

The researchers gathered their information over a series of experiments. Recruiting 81 Portugal-based supervisors for the first experiment, the researchers had each supervisor manage a team of at least two people.

Multiple occupations were represented in the study, such as architecture and engineering, business and financial operations, computers and mathematics, management, and sales.

Levels of emotional exhaustion in workers were measured through the use of questionnaires, along with how well they perceived their managers to be supporting them and their work and how well they felt they were planning to overcome exhaustion.

The second experiment saw 177 U.S. full-time workers take an online questionnaire regarding what the study calls “instrumental social support” in the workplace and its impact on work happiness.

The third experiment tried to replicate and build upon the results of the first two experiments, this time recruiting another 242 workers to take questionnaires about emotional exhaustion and their happiness in the workplace.

The researchers found that the less workers were perceived to be supported by their managers, the more incentivized they became to seek out an action plan to deal with stress and emotional exhaustion.

Paired with a strong social support system, where a worker can receive advice and support from others in the work environment, workers were found to be able to boost their levels of happiness.

While low amounts of perceived managerial support created an environment where workers could better plan how to deal with exhaustion, it was only through social support that a worker’s planning could lead to boosted feelings of happiness.

“Perceived supervisor support appears to be a double-edge sword, on the one hand preventing the emergence of emotional exhaustion but on the other hand diminishing the likelihood that employees will engage in planning to deal with the emotional exhaustion they are experiencing,” wrote Dr. Carlos Peralta, head researcher for the study.

While low supervisor support can lead to better worker planning, the study suggests that all supervisors should be “attentive” to the experiences of their employees. In a case where a worker is experiencing emotional exhaustion, the researchers suggest that managers should only offer that person help if the worker requests it.

Though it can be tempting for some managers to overcompensate and increase the levels of support to workers who may be struggling, wrote the researchers, doing so may only ultimately delay or hinder a worker’s own ability to create his or her own coping mechanisms.

“It is important to note that it is not emotional exhaustion per se, but rather how people cope with it, that is beneficial for individuals. Our findings suggest that the activities people engage in have a key role in building happiness from an internally stressful experience and that emotional exhaustion can have a silver lining,” wrote Peralta.

The research also supported employees using two problem-focused coping strategies, with workers establishing an action plan to deal with emotional exhaustion, and then bolstering that plan with instrumental social support to increase happiness levels.

“This research contributes to a greater understanding of whether benefits can be gained by individuals as they cope with emotional exhaustion. The findings help clarify the role of social support in dealing with and becoming happy after emotional exhaustion,” wrote Peralta, on the study’s final importance.

In the study, researchers wrote that further testing and experimentation is required to perceive the finer nuances of the interactions between social support and planning for a worker, and the difference between perceived supervisor support and requested support.