How we cope with stress at work

Stress and exhaustion seem inevitable bedfellows of our hectic modern lives, and when our energies are low it can be tempting to try and brush such things under the carpet and hope they go away.  A recent study shows the benefits of tackling them head on however.

The study, from researchers at the University of East Anglia, examined the impact of various strategies for dealing with emotional exhaustion at work, and in particular the perceived support we receive from our boss.

Lack of support

Interestingly, it emerged that when we believe our bosses aren’t going to give us much support, it encourages us not only to take the initiative ourselves, but also to actively seek support from elsewhere.  It’s a process the researchers call instrumental social support, and includes seeking advice, support and information from others.

It’s also a process that appears to make us happier, due in large part to the search for support enhancing the relationship between planning and happiness.

The harmful impact emotional exhaustion can have at work are well known, whether it’s reduced performance levels or even depression.  A supportive boss can certainly help to prevent the onset of such exhaustion, but it isn’t something we all have the benefit of, and the study provides a useful glimpse into this more realistic environment.

“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,” the authors say.

“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,” they continue.

The road to recovery

The researchers hope that their work will enable organizations to better devise strategies to help employees to buffer the stresses of work, and indeed to recover faster when things get too much for them.

Of course, the obvious strategy is for managers to be more involved and attentive to the concerns of their team.  The paper argues that they could benefit from training that differentiates between the actions that can prevent employees’ emotional exhaustion and those that can support employees’ efforts to cope with emotional exhaustion.

“Providing support may prevent the emergence of emotional exhaustion in employees,” the researchers say. “However, when an employee is experiencing emotional exhaustion it might be useful to just provide support when and if requested. Otherwise, the employee may not engage or delay the engagement in coping activities that can enhance their happiness. This is particularly relevant as caring supervisors might be tempted to increase the support they provide when an employee is showing signals of emotional exhaustion.”

A stress employee could benefit enormously from an individual plan that contains a healthy dose of support from both peers and managers.

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