How to Reduce Emotional Exhaustion at Work

Topic(s): burnout, engagement, performance, wellness
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2015)
Article: Rising to the Challenge: Deep Acting is More Beneficial When Tasks are Appraised as Challenging
Authors: J.L. Huang, D.S. Chiaburu, X.-a. Zhang, N. Li., A.A. Grandey
Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Emotional exhaustion at work can happen because we are all capable of hiding our true emotions and acting in ways contrary to how we feel. For example, think of that time when you were annoyed with a customer but kept your cool. As you can imagine, maintaining this facade can be emotionally exhausting, especially in a service environment. This feeling can have serious implications for work attitudes and behavior. In a service environment, the “customer is always right” approach requires emotional labor, which can deplete emotional resources and ultimately erode performance.


New research (Huang, Chiaburu, Zhang, Li, & Grandey, 2015) investigated the effects of emotional labor on potential emotional exhaustion and subsequent attitudes (job satisfaction) and behavior (handling conflict with customers). Emotional labor happens when a person tries to keep their public display of emotions in line with certain norms or expectations, which can be difficult and stressful. Two aspects of emotional labor were explored, namely “deep acting,” which is when we change our actual feelings to match the required emotional display, and “surface acting,” which is when we display the emotions required of the situation, but without the matching inner emotional adjustment. An example of surface acting is when acting in a pleasant way towards a customer, but still thinking about how the customer is a nuisance.

The results of the study interestingly showed that under certain conditions, deep acting (changing your actual emotions) can be less exhausting than surface acting. Make no mistake, deep acting does require effort and can therefore be draining, but there is a weak relationship with strain. This is explained by the fact that energy used to change our emotions is often repaid by social rewards, such as positive social responses from customers, or intrinsic rewards that come from the feeling of personal accomplishment.


Another interesting aspect of the research findings was that to gain the most from the potential benefits of deep acting over surface acting, a key condition was necessary, namely “felt challenge.” This means perceiving potential conflict as a challenge rather than a threat, or viewing any service interaction as engaging rather than mundane and boring. The felt challenge in a task causes people to positively evaluate work demands. For example, interpreting work requirements as having potential for reward and opportunity for growth. It was when individuals engaged in deep acting and experienced felt challenge, that they were less likely to feel emotionally exhausted after an interaction. Feeling less exhausted in turn had a positive impact on job satisfaction and the way individuals handled customers on a daily basis.


Interventions aimed directly at increasing emotional labor skills for those in the service industry may not significantly reduce emotional exhaustion. However, this study highlights how increasing felt challenge can help reduce this strain. Luckily, it is also easier to influence, as felt challenge can be increased with on-the-job interventions. These interventions may include magnifying job responsibility, creating competition, or increasing task significance (meaning highlighting the importance of a specific task at work). These interventions can help empower employees, and can help strengthen employees’ deep acting, resulting in less employee exhaustion, and ultimately better job satisfaction and better customer experience.

In addition, the benefits revealed by the research may also extend to other effectiveness outcomes and overall performance. Individuals who save internal resources will be left with more resources to apply to other areas of a job. This may result in better returns for managers and organizations.

Huang, J. L., Chiaburu, D. S., Zhang, X-a., Li, N., & Grandey, A. A. (2015). Rising to the Challenge: Deep Acting is More Beneficial When Tasks are Appraised as Challenging. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(5), 1398-1408.