01 Apr How to Refuel When You’re Feeling Emotionally Drained
Emotional exhaustion lies at the heart of burnout. As your emotional resources are used up in trying to cope with challenging situations — such as overwhelming demands, conflict, or lack of support at work or at home — your sense of well-being and capacity to care for yourself and others is diminished. In fact, research shows that people suffering from emotional exhaustion experience higher levels of work-life conflict. They may find that they have less patience to engage with family and friends at the end of the day and become frustrated with them more easily — a problem that is exacerbated by the current Covid-19 crisis, not only for those toiling away on the front lines but also working from home, while balancing personal responsibilities with no outside help. This can lead us to feelings of guilt and loss.
Let’s picture Evelyn. She’s a product manager in a medical device firm that’s recently been acquired, she was already struggling with a high level of uncertainty at work prior to the pandemic. While she feels lucky to be financially stable for the time being, work remains an emotional struggle. Since the acquisition, she hasn’t been getting reliable information from senior leadership and doesn’t know whom to trust. Consequently, she can’t provide clarity to her worried – and now remote – team, which makes her feel like an unreliable leader. She is disappointed at her boss’s failure to advocate for the division and to demand greater clarity from the executives of the acquiring company. What’s worse, the very qualities of the business that gave Evelyn a sense of purpose are being extinguished, leading her to question how long she can continue working there. The unsettling prospect of having to leave a job she once loved to protect her happiness is heightened by her status as the primary earner in her family and the contracting job market. The weight of these circumstances has left Evelyn emotionally exhausted.
Evelyn’s husband Jack is a writer who’s been working from home since before their three-year-old son, Ben, and seven-year-old daughter, Judith, were born. Prior to the lockdown, Jack took care of the children while Evelyn was at the office. Now that they’re all home together, the boundaries between her personal and professional lives have collapsed and she worries that she’s performing poorly in both areas. She’s annoyed when her children interrupt her work calls and disappointed with herself for feeling that way. At the same time, her mind churns with anxiety about her job. She feels unable to shake her growing sense of dread and feels like a less joyful person than she used to be. On her worst days, she barely recognizes herself.
Evelyn’s situation is not unique. Many of my coaching clients are also emotionally drained by aspects of their jobs, from an overwhelming workload to interpersonal conflict, having to compromise one’s values to being ostracized, mistreated, or harassed. During the pandemic, grief over the loss of normalcy, concerns about health and financial security, and the challenges of navigating confinement and isolation ─ or the lack of ability to find quiet time alone ─ are additional factors that can exacerbate stress.
Pushing back against emotional exhaustion requires a combination of three approaches: reducing the drain on your emotional resources, learning to conserve them, and regularly replenishing them. Imagine that you have an internal fuel tank and a gauge on your dashboard that lets you know how full it is. Some conditions cause your fuel to burn up quickly, just as extreme weather, rough terrain, carrying a heavy load, or accelerating and braking rapidly would use gas at a greater rate than normal on-the-road scenarios. To make sure you don’t run low on fuel, you want to reduce your exposure to difficult conditions, drive more efficiently, and make sure you refuel regularly.
Reducing the Drain
The first step in reducing emotional resource consumption is recognizing the circumstances (e.g., situations, tasks, relationships) that deplete you, then limiting your exposure to them. Turning back to the case of Evelyn, there is not much she can do to change or avoid the shifting cultural dynamics at work in the wake of the acquisition or the additional stressors created by the pandemic and recession. But she has realized that engaging in doomsday conversations with a particularly negative colleague heightens her anxiety, so Evelyn is no longer indulging in these exchanges. When her coworker starts complaining, Evelyn reminds her that, while they’re not happy about the direction the company appears to be moving in, they’ll both feel and perform better if they focus on what they can control, such as how they show up and relate to other people. Then she engages her counterpart in a conversation about what’s going well. Evelyn has also asked her boss to share any information he receives from senior leadership even if it’s incomplete. She has made it clear that she is better able to manage her team when she has a clearer view of what’s happening at the top of the organization.
Learning to Conserve
The next step is learning to operate with greater emotional efficiency with emotion regulation techniques, such as recognizing and acknowledging your feelings and reappraising stressful experiences. Evelyn uses two strategies to reframe what she experiences and how she thinks about it to conserve her emotional resources. The first is stepping outside of her own perspective and considering the larger context of her situation. She reminds herself that some of the disruptions she’s facing, although unpleasant, is normal in the context of mergers and acquisitions and that those related to the pandemic have become a universal experience. When she remembers that she is one of many people going through such turmoil, it feels less personal. The second strategy is staying connected to her core values and using them to navigate difficult situations. Evelyn cares deeply about being honest and reliable. In coaching, we helped her find tangible anchors for these values by reflecting on what comes to mind when she thinks about the words honesty and reliability. She settled on an antique clock on her shelf — a gift from her beloved father — that still keeps perfect time. For her, it represents honesty and reliability. Whenever she looks at the clock, she renews her connection to these values and feels more capable of showing up as a positive and supportive leader her team can rely on.
Replenishing Your Fuel
The other critical strategy for preventing emotional exhaustion is making sure that you refuel. To overcome her fears about potentially having to find a new job, Evelyn is reaching out and renewing connections with people in her network. Through these conversations, she feels a stronger sense of belonging to her professional community, gathers valuable information about options available to her, and feels validated as a person who has much to offer. As a result, she feels much more hopeful. While she’s not actively looking for another job at this time, she’ll be better positioned if she does decide to.
Another way to boost reserves is to engage in non-work activities ─ like going for walks, connecting with friends over Zoom, or pursuing hobbies like cooking or gardening. Doing so promotes relaxation, psychological detachment from work, and feelings of control and mastery. One insidious effect of emotional exhaustion is, when you’re suffering from it, you may feel too tired to marshal the effort needed for exercise, social interaction, or hobbies. But you must.
Evelyn and her family came up with a creative ritual for joyfully reconnecting with one another. At six o’clock every evening, Jack puts on dance music and everyone dances together in the living room for 15 minutes. The kids look forward to it, the adults let go of the day’s stresses, and they all laugh, smile, and enjoy being silly together. Mindfulness practices, such as paying attention to your experiences from moment-to-moment, focusing on your breathing, spending 10 minutes thinking about what you’re grateful for, or intentionally looking for what’s positive, are yet another way to refuel. Research shows that people who do this at work experience lower levels of emotional exhaustion.
Adopting the above practices doesn’t mean you won’t experience moments of stress and anxiety. But they will increase your resilience and resistance to emotional exhaustion.