How workplace anxiety fuels emotional exhaustion

Emotional exhaustion can be defined as a chronic state of physical and emotional depletion that results from excessive job and/or personal demands and continuous stress

Published: Jun 29, 2016
How workplace anxiety fuels emotional exhaustion
Julie McCarthy

Feelings of anxiety are a pervasive problem in today’s stressful and fast-paced work environment: in recent surveys, 41% of workers reported ‘elevated levels’ of workplace tension, and studies show that as many as 80% feel ‘stressed out’. The bad news for employers? Anxiety-related absences are, on average, four times longer than other illnesses or injuries. The scourge of anxiety has been estimated to cost the U.S. economy over $40 billion, annually.

High levels of anxiety are not just expensive for organizations, they have also been found to have negative effects on ethical behaviour, organizational effectiveness, and economic success.  Anxiety is also problematic for employees, as it contributes to job dissatisfaction and has detrimental consequences on job performance.

How does anxiety affect job performance? Research in this domain has largely drawn from ‘cognitive interference’ theories, which examine the unwanted and often disturbing thoughts that sometimes intrude upon an individual’s thinking—and subsequently, interfere with their behaviour. While we agree that cognitive interference is a key aspect of the anxiety-performance dynamic, we also believe it is not the only mechanism at play.
Let’s take a step back and look at the concept of ‘job performance’ itself, which requires executing multiple tasks over a sustained period of time. As such, high levels of job performance are dependent upon the protection and facilitation of two types of resources: cognitive resources and personal resources. We propose that, in addition to cognitive interference—which addresses cognitive resources—another key factor in the relation between anxiety and job performance involves a personal resource: emotional exhaustion.

Emotional exhaustion can be defined as a chronic state of physical and emotional depletion that results from excessive job and/or personal demands and continuous stress. Simply put, it describes a feeling of being emotionally overextended and thereby exhausted by one's work. The few studies that have examined workplace anxiety have found a negative association between anxiety and job performance—as anxiety goes up, performance goes down—and most of these studies have focused on cognitive interference as the primary factor. These theories posit that anxiety interferes with people’s ability to process immediate events, resulting in lower performance.

While cognitive interference is one mechanism driving performance in situations that trigger anxiety, we recently set out to prove that  emotional exhaustion is an even more powerful driver. This is because, as indicated, job performance requires the execution of multiple tasks over long periods of time. As a result, job performance is highly dependent upon the protection and facilitation of personal resources. High levels of workplace anxiety drain these resources, resulting in reduced levels of job performance.

We believe that Kent State University Professor Steven Hobfoll’s Conservation of Resources Theory (COR) provides an excellent framework for detailing the processes leading to, and the consequences of, emotional exhaustion.

COR holds that individuals naturally strive to protect and build resources such as time and energy, and that doing so is important, because ‘resource drain’ leads to emotional exhaustion. COR also has a ‘long-term’ emphasis, focusing on the depletion of resources over time. In fact, a key premise of the theory—as well as other research focusing on emotional exhaustion—is that the continual depletion of personal resources will result in burnout symptoms, including emotional exhaustion.

COR also provides insight into factors that might buffer the negative relation between anxiety and performance. It shows that, in order to mitigate the effects associated with resource loss, people often call upon resources that are available to them from the environment. We believe that one such resource—social support—is particularly  critical in this regard. That’s because social support can act to offset resource drain and its corresponding negative consequences in many ways, such as broadening one’s pool of available resources and promoting positive coping skills. Combined, these ‘social support functions’ can serve to replenish an individual’s resource pool, resulting in ‘positive gain spirals’ that offset the effects of emotional exhaustion and promote better performance.

We believe social support is particularly important in a work context, because individuals with whom employees interact regularly can provide both material and socio-emotional resources that aid them in their daily activities. In a recent study, we extended COR Theory to consider two fundamental workplace sources of social support: the support employees receive from their fellow employees, which is called co-worker exchange (CWX); and the support employees receive from their supervisors, which is called leader-member exchange (LMX).

The fact is, both co-workers and supervisors are ideally placed to provide socio-emotional and material resources, and we predicted that employees with high CWX and LMX are able to draw upon the socio-emotional and material support received from peers and supervisors to replenish their resources and aid their performance when experiencing anxiety-induced emotional exhaustion.

How workplace anxiety fuels emotional exhaustion
John Trougakos

Let’s take a closer look at each form of workplace social support.

Co-Worker-Exchange (CWX). Relationships between co-workers are qualitatively distinct from those between employees and supervisors —mainly because employees often possess significantly less power with respect to supervisors, but relatively equal levels of power with respect to co-workers. In addition, the roles co-workers occupy rarely involve performance monitoring, so relations between employees and co-workers centre more on social reciprocity and trust, while those between supervisors and employees centre more on economic transactions and authority. While these exchange relations can cross—such that employees can have social exchanges with supervisors and economic exchanges with co-workers—authentic social exchanges of an intimate and personal nature are more likely to occur between co-workers, for two main reasons.

First, employees are more likely to use ‘impression management’ tactics to mask their negative emotions when interacting with supervisors. In such situations, they have a strong tendency to suppress negative emotions such as anxiety. This ‘masking’ happens to a far lesser degree when they interact with co-workers. Similarly, employees have been found to share emotional experiences with co-workers in almost 80 per cent of emotional workplace events. Thus, employees are likely more relaxed and share internal affective (i.e. emotional) states when interacting with co-workers as compared to supervisors. Second, co-workers interact much more frequently with each other than with supervisors, providing a more accurate daily picture of each other’s well-being. These frequent interactions increase the number of emotional and behavioural resources that co-workers can draw from to provide social support.
Prior to our research, there was evidence for the moderating role of co-worker support in the relation between general stressors and strains: co-worker support had been found to minimize the negative effects of strain on affective (i.e. emotional) outcomes, such as depressed mood, and health-related outcomes, such as depression. Such support had also been found to buffer the relation between abusive supervision and emotional exhaustion. However, the role of co-worker support in the relation between anxiety and emotional exhaustion had not yet been considered.

Leader-Member Exchange (LMX). Whereas co-worker support buffers the exhaustion associated with anxiety, supervisor support is more likely to impact the link between emotional exhaustion and job performance. As described, interactions between employees and supervisors are less likely to involve emotional sharing and displays of emotions than are interactions between co-workers. Compared to co-worker interactions, those between employees and supervisors are more likely to be based on economic exchange, where employees provide high levels of performance in exchange for tangible rewards.

According to Sociologist George Homans’ Social Exchange Theory, this occurs because supervisory support promotes employees’ sense of obligation and increases their motivation to perform. This elevated motivation should allow employees with higher LMX to overcome the effects of exhaustion on performance. This is consistent with research on personal resources, which shows that people who have higher levels of motivation are able to maintain performance effectiveness even when resources are depleted (i.e., states of exhaustion). Thus, supervisor support should lead to more technically precise work outcomes than should co-worker support.

We also posited that strong LMX relationships provide employees with greater external resources, which can help to off-set depleted internal personal resources. Supervisors are often gate-keepers to tangible resources within an organization, and therefore, strong relationships with them can help employees obtain the material resources necessary to perform at a higher level. Thus, supervisor support is particularly relevant in buffering the link between exhaustion and performance.

Our Research
To test our predictions, we, along with our co-author Bonnie Cheng of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, conducted a field study with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Given regular interactions with violent offenders, crime scenes, accident victims and other demands, the policing environment is characterized by high degrees of stress. This places employees at a significantly higher risk of physical and mental health effects than the general population, and not surprisingly, workplace anxiety is a common phenomenon in policing organizations.
Participants in our study included police officers, their supervisors, and their peers. At Time 1, officers completed a measure of workplace anxiety. At Time 2 (three months later), they completed measures of emotional exhaustion and cognitive interference. At Time 3 (six weeks following the Time 2 survey), supervisors completed measures of LMX and job performance, while peers completed a measure of CWX.

Workplace anxiety was assessed with eight items modified from the Performance Anxiety Scale developed by one of the authors (Julie McCarthy) and Richard Goffin. A sample item is: ‘I am overwhelmed by thoughts of doing poorly at work’. See Figure One for a full list. We assessed emotional exhaustion with the five-item sub-scale of the Maslach Burnout Inventory General Survey. A sample item from this survey is: ‘I feel used-up at the end of the work day’. Cognitive interference was assessed with six items adapted from the Cognitive Interference Questionnaire. A sample item: ‘When I am at work, I think about non-work activities’.


Our first hypothesis was that emotional exhaustion would mediate the relation between workplace anxiety and job performance, while accounting for cognitive interference. As predicted, workplace anxiety demonstrated a significant positive relation with emotional exhaustion, which in turn demonstrated a significant negative effect on job performance. See Figure Two.

Our second set of hypotheses focused on the moderating roles of CWX (relationships with co-workers) and LMX (relationships with supervisors/leaders). We assessed CWX by modifying seven items from Graen and Uhl-Bien’s LMX scale, and we assessed LMX with seven items from the same scale. Our finding: CWX (but not LMX) significantly moderates the relation between workplace anxiety and emotional exhaustion, while LMX (but not CWX) significantly moderates the relation between emotional exhaustion and job performance.

Combined, our results provide strong support for our model of workplace anxiety and job performance. Our research demonstrates that emotional exhaustion is an important mechanism underlying the relation between workplace anxiety and performance. We also showed that social exchange can mitigate the harmful effects of workplace anxiety, such that the strength of co-worker relations moderate the association between anxiety and emotional exhaustion, and the strength of leader relations moderate the association between emotional exhaustion and job performance.

To summarize, while workplace anxiety may come at a high cost, social support can mitigate its negative effects. This study has notable implications for individuals who suffer from high levels of workplace anxiety, for individuals who work in demanding environments, and for individuals who work in high-pressure industries. First, it demonstrates that workplace anxiety comes at a high cost, as anxious individuals are more likely to experience emotional exhaustion, and in turn, have lower levels of performance. As a result, it is crucial for these employees to have access to resources that allow them to recover from the resource drain that workplace anxiety can induce.

Our findings also highlight the important role of social-exchange resources, as employees who were able to draw on supervisors and co-workers for support were less likely to experience the harmful effects of workplace anxiety and emotional exhaustion. Thus, continuously working to improve relationships between co-workers and between employees and supervisors is paramount. Separate research suggests that the key to developing these strong relations is very simple: open communication.

In closing
Our study found that, in addition to cognitive interference, emotional exhaustion is a key factor in the link between workplace anxiety and job performance. This finding is important, because it suggests that workplace anxiety should be modeled in a more holistic manner than has been done in the past. Our results also provide insight into the power of social exchange as an antidote to the effects of workplace anxiety. Overall, workplace anxiety comes at a high cost; but it can be managed.

Julie McCarthy is an Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior & HR Management at the Rotman School of Management. John Trougakos is also an Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior & HR Management at the Rotman School. They are the co-authors, along with Bonnie Hayden Cheng of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, of “Are Anxious Workers Less Productive Workers? It Depends on the Quality of Social Exchange.” This paper recently appeared in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Rotman faculty research is ranked #4 globally by the Financial Times.

Reprinted with permission from the Winter 2016 edition of Rotman Management, published by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

Workplace Anxiety Defined

•    I am overwhelmed by thoughts of doing poorly at work.
•    I worry that my work performance will be lower than that of others at work.
•    I feel nervous and apprehensive about not being able to meet performance targets.
•    I worry about not receiving a positive job performance evaluation.
•    I often feel anxious that I will not be able to perform my job duties in the time allotted.
•    I worry about whether others consider me to be a good employee for the job.
•    I worry that I will not be able to successfully manage the demands of my job.
•    Even when I try as hard as I can, I still worry about whether my job performance will be good enough.

Adapted from McCarthy & Goffin (2004)

[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]

Show More
Post Your Comment
Required, will not be published
All comments are moderated
Finding the next billion-dollar company
Google promises an immersive search experience for cinema lovers