Getting bogged down by circumstances is probably not an uncommon experience for many – the stresses of life (one’s work and personal contexts) seem to close in on one and one gets “stuck”, immobilised and down-hearted. In spite of these negative emotions and at the same time, one is expected to be fully present at meetings, make those sales targets, contribute significantly to the productivity ideals of the company and manage family and homes as if each family member was a customer in a guest house. We make concerted attempts to be resilient, smile whenever possible and doggedly process all that needs to be done, but inwardly feel helpless. If left unchecked, this emotional dissonance can easily convert into depression, producing further anxiety and pain.

Emotional dissonance is the feeling experienced when one is forced to fake an emotion (for example, flight attendants are expected to have an upbeat disposition at all times, regardless of their actual emotional state). As many economies are dominated by service industries, emotional dissonance may result in rising numbers of dissatisfied and burnt-out employees – particularly with feelings of emotional exhaustion. Studies (as in Leadership & Organisation Development Journal, 1999) have shown that employees with innately low self-esteem were more likely to experience emotional dissonance and suffer from emotional exhaustion. Other employees found that emotional dissonance reduced their self-esteem, leaving them dissatisfied. Emotional dissonance particularly becomes a reality when circumstances threaten our very identity – feelings of unease when status, self-confidence, self-efficacy and personhood get potentially jeopardised. In turn, this leads to lowered self-esteem, depression, cynicism and alienation from work.

It would seem that company leadership has a huge responsibility in providing an enhanced environment where employees can find meaning in the work that they do, where they can realise some of their dreams and also provide for their respective families satisfactorily. Some of these factors that contribute to an emotionally stable and conducive environment are the following:

  1. Physical office context – this should be professional, ergonomically appropriate and fun. Work tools and other resources should be modern, reliable and efficient. Relax and rest areas, with available tea/coffee stations, need to be created for planned “down-time” (this is especially true for call centre staff interfacing with potentially aggressive clients).
  2. Emotional support – leaders need to demonstrate care, not only for teams, but individuals too. Frequent “on the floor” conversations give opportunity for employees to chat about their respective issues in a non-threatening context. In this way, leadership becomes accessible for them. Debrief any noticeable emotion immediately.
  3. Adequate training – this should not only be focused on technical requirements, but also the communication skills and emotional fortitude needed to deal with irate customers.
  4. Consistent and constant communication and feedback – where we are winning and where we still need to improve. Solicit ideas for improvements from employees and make sure that as many suggestions as possible are implemented. This develops pride and a sense of belonging.
  5. Recognition and reward – appropriate and timely recognition and reward goes a long way to building morale. People need to know that effort is being noticed. Pay the best-possible salaries in the industry.
  6. Big-picture vision – strategy and planned growth need to be articulated in the context of organisational values to assist employees with linking to the expected behaviours and subsequent culture of the company. Members of staff need to be able to see themselves acting out roles that contribute to realise the aspirations of the company vision.

Corporate leadership has a responsibility to assist employees with overcoming emotional exhaustion in the workplace. Their care, demonstrated with integrity, will probably go a long way to root employees in the fertile soil of purpose and meaning.

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