If You Want to Prevent Exhaustion … Don’t Worry, Be Happy!

Topic:  Stress, Burnout, Performance, Fairness, Compensation
Publication: Journal of Organizational Behavior
Article: Emotional exhaustion and job performance: The moderating role of distributive justice and positive affect (AUG 2010)
Author: O. Janssen, C. K. Lam, & X. Huang
Reviewed by: Sarah Teague

Sometimes work is just exhausting; emotionally exhausting to be specific. Emotional exhaustion (EE) refers to feeling overwhelmed or drained at work. Not surprisingly, recent research has linked EE to decrements in performance through the Conservation of Resources (COR) theory. COR theory suggests that EE impairs performance because employees feel that they do not have the adequate resources to meet the current job demands, but is this always the case? When an employee begins to feel depleted, do they automatically attribute it to lack of personal resources? The authors of the current article suggest not.

The current study used COR and justice attributions (i.e. internal vs. external explanation for an event) to further explain how emotional exhaustion impacts job performance. Specifically, the authors proposed that emotional exhaustion will have a greater negative impact on performance when perceived distributive justice (DJ; adequate compensation for effort expended) is high. They reason that when DJ is high, employees attribute their depletion to personal inadequacies (internal) rather than poor compensation (external).

Additionally, the authors hypothesized that positive affect would buffer the effects of this two-way interaction as it would enable employees to seek out additional resources. Results support both propositions.

In sum, emotional exhaustion hinders performance, and this is especially the case when those employees can’t blame their exhaustion on the company (conditions of high DJ). So does this mean that DJ is a bad thing? (No! Please continue to pay your employees the wages they deserve.) Rather, it is best to try to prevent EE; those without EE with high DJ were the best performers overall. Remember that, in this study, high PA buffered the negative interaction effects of high DJ and EE. Accordingly, the authors suggest that the most practical course of action is to create a work environment that “cultivates positive affect among organizational members.”

In this case, a happy worker does seem to be a productive worker.

Janssen, O., Lam, C. K., & Huang, X. (2010). Emotional exhaustion and job performance: The moderating role of distributive justice and positive affect. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 31(6), 787-809.