The Employees Are Not Alright — How We Can Revitalize a Weary Workforce

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The automatic chime of a new email strikes your inbox. For a second, you don’t dare look away from one of 17 tabs open on the computer screen for fear of distraction or exasperation. This innocent chime ignites not an instinctive reaction of wonder or curiosity, but often of annoyance or sheer response exhaustion. Another email becomes another cog in the nonstop wheel of filtering what needs a response now and what can wait until you respond tomorrow while in a meeting that should have been an email.

In the age of remote and hybrid work, this brief moment in time is a familiar one for many employees across the U.S. Such moans and groans may have held little weight for supervisors in the past, but the rise of quiet quitting and burnout — and perhaps malaise — enveloping the American workforce now begs the question: If employees are not alright, what can be done?

Numbers that Speak for Themselves

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a study at Yale University found that one in five employees in the U.S. were highly burned out. Another third of all employees across industries showed moderate burnout. That is to say, in a room of just 10 coworkers, you are likely sitting next to at least one that is or will experience a state of physical and, or, emotional exhaustion brought on by workplace stress. 

An organization’s culture of emotional intelligence, or the ability to perceive, use, understand and manage emotions, may have once felt like a luxury reserved for upmarket gigs, but it is now an active ingredient in job searches. Being nice isn’t emotional intelligence and it isn’t enough to get employees to stay either. Those fed up with a lack of respect feel increasingly empowered to leave and take their emotional health elsewhere, but who can blame them? Employee wellbeing is low while the demands remain all too high. 

A Call to Action in Workplace Culture   

recent study from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence pulls the rug out from underneath organizational leaders that believe employees should leave their emotions at the door while still reaching theirfull potential at work. It’s simply a notion of the past. While the Center has been speaking on the need for implementing a culture of emotional intelligence for a decade, many workplaces still have catching up to do. Surveying over 1,000 working adults across the U.S. and across industries, this study identified the effects of emotionally intelligent values and practices on employees from a macro-level perspective of organizational culture. What we found is that organizational practices embedded with emotional intelligence have a top-down effect on employee engagement and exhaustion via the emotionally intelligent behavior of supervisors. In other words, when those who directly supervise do so with attention to emotion, it trickles down to the benefit of their employees.

By contrast, supervisors who fail to form constructive and emotionally enabling workplaces by showing little to no concern for their others’ emotional experience are more likely to:

  • Lead with harshness that disregard employees’ emotions
  • Refrain from managing their own emotions effectively
  • Berate employees publicly
  • Create a downward spiral of demands that further drains employees

A real-life example that we collected in previous research is of a nurse whose request for time off was denied per hospital PTO policies even after her supervisor agreed that it would alleviate exhaustion and stress. This nurse, like others, was thus emotionally abandoned by her supervisor and left no option but to keep working amid rapidly declining emotional capacity. Similar examples manifest in other workplace contexts when supervisors fail to address unproductive meetings that happen too frequently or for too long and leave employees little time to actually complete tasks, further depleting their emotional resources and ability to perform.

What Do Emotionally Intelligent Organizations Look Like? 

Research shows that workplaces which value emotional intelligence don’t just talk about emotions, but embed attention to emotions into their everyday norms, values and practices. In other words, they walk the walk. From top-down, members of the organization are encouraged to behave in ways that support their own emotional wellbeing and that of others. Here are examples of how organizational leaders can kickstart this:

  • Regular surveys that capture how employees feel at work
  • Job interviews that ask candidates how they deal with emotions
  • Workshops on stress management and conflict resolution techniques  
  • Promotion processes that assess how considerate candidates are to other employees 

This means that an emotionally intelligent organization supports all of its members to bring their emotions through the door and invests in and rewards the development of their emotional abilities without prescribing which emotions are right or wrong, good or bad. The point? Emotional intelligence can be trained, learned and developed. The goal? Supervisors and employees that understand: causes and consequences of emotions in the workplace, the role of emotions in decision-making, and embrace emotion regulation to the benefit of positive workplace culture for everyone.

But this is not just emotional intelligence for the sake of emotional intelligence. By upholding practices and behaviors such as these, organizations can spark an “upward spiral” that both ignites engagement among employees and buffers exhaustion throughout the organization. It’s a win-win.

Emotional Intelligence: A New and Necessary Normal

This research also indicates the opposite can be true for organizations ridden with emotional misbehavior: emotionally harsh supervisors spur downward spirals of their employees’ already declining emotional resources. Where organizational leadership disregards emotional intelligence, there is a top-down effect on employee exhaustion. While cubicles and meeting rooms can be colored with ingenuity, creativity and commitment when an emotionally intelligent culture is at work, these same spaces can also cradle the drain and strain of exhausted employees dreading that ding of another email.

This is, in part, because supervisors serve as a source of emotion contagion. Among those surveyed, it was found that a supervisor’s emotionally intelligent behavior was positively related to employee engagement and negatively related to employee exhaustion. On the other hand, supervisor emotional misbehavior was positively related to employee exhaustion. Therefore, an organizational culture that values emotion is all the more critical because supervisors are more likely to express emotionally intelligent behavior for themselves and for their employees when they, too, feel supported. 

A positive example we have encountered in our research is when a hospital supervisor provided a nurse the opportunity to better recognize and manage her emotions in response to negative feedback she received from colleagues. Thus, an emotionally intelligent supervisor was able to support and cultivate the emotional growth of their employee through the provision of emotionally intelligent resources like coaching and a culture of feedback. 

Top-Down Investment

For organizational leaders, the research is clear and the alarm is sounding: employees want emotionally intelligent workplaces, they want to be around emotionally skilled co-workers and supervisors, and when they aren’t, they may just leave in search of it. Organizational leadership — and the culture that follows — without emotional intelligence is more than apathetic, it is negligent and exploitative. If you want to retain good employees then you need to care about their emotions, and not just the pleasant ones. Translated into everyday practice this means nurturing an organizational culture in which all members, supervisors and employees alike, have the opportunity to work, to learn, to develop and be rewarded for emotionally intelligent behavior.

Robin Stern, PhD, is the co-founder and associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, a psychoanalyst in private practice and the author of “The Gaslight Effect”. Connect with her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Zorana Ivcevic Pringle, PhD, is a Senior Research Scientist and Director of the Creativity and Emotions Lab at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Connect with her on LinkedInFacebook, and Twitter.

Krista Smith, MAT, is a PhD Social Work student with research interests in education, equity, and emotional intelligence.

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