Emotional exhaustion: How to spot the symptoms

17 April 2023 dot 5-minute read
Mental health Feel Well Healthy Mind Live Well Emotional exhaustion How to
Based on Gallup's State of the Workplace report, employees who thrive at work experience less stress, anger and health problems. (Credit: Shutterstock)
Not long ago, the global work culture saw emotional exhaustion as a status symbol. Back-breaking work with no rest implied success and being in demand. Fortunately, times are changing, thanks in part to the lessons learned during the pandemic.
Employees were already overextended pre-COVID. A Gallup survey showed work stress was hovering near 40 per cent among the global workforce. The figure reached 44 per cent a year into the pandemic.
The economic and personal pain of COVID-19 pushed everyone's resilience to the limit. Employers and employees alike were acutely aware that their mental health needed tending to continue thriving.

What happens when stress becomes chronic

Unmanaged, chronic work stress can lead to burnout, a syndrome that World Health Organization (WHO) describes as having three characteristics:
  • Zero energy and emotional exhaustion
  • Indifference and cynicism towards work
  • De-motivation and work performance decline
These dimensions show burnout has cognitive and emotional paths. However, detachment and lack of drive develop over time, primarily driven by emotional exhaustion. To curb health ramifications, it’s crucial to recognise the signs of burnout.

Signs of emotional exhaustion at work

Exhaustion prevents you from meeting the emotional demands of your work. (Credit: Shutterstock)
The Encyclopaedia of Stress defines emotional exhaustion as feeling overextended and drained by others. It is the most widely reported burnout symptom in the workplace.
According to a Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology study, employees overwhelmed by exhaustion cope by either reducing their effort at tasks or disengaging themselves from the workplace. The consequences include avoidance of responsibilities, increased absenteeism, lower job satisfaction and diminished productivity.
Greater interpersonal conflict is another outcome of emotional exhaustion. An International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health study shows the lack of a strong bond with one’s social environment at work can lead to counterproductive behaviour. Stressed employees may struggle to communicate effectively with colleagues and become rude or hurtful. They may also withdraw from social interactions altogether.
The signs of emotional exhaustion are different for everyone, but these are the most common manifestations.

Psychological symptoms

  • Irritability
  • Constant frustration or anger
  • Lack of focus
  • Helplessness
  • Pessimism

Physical symptoms

  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Digestive issues
  • Changes in appetite or weight

How to manage emotional exhaustion symptoms

The first step to addressing emotional overextension is to recognise your stressors, whether they be a situation, task or person. You may be unable to change your circumstances at work, but identifying your stressor allows you to set boundaries and take self-care action.
Power through the pile-up of negative emotions using these approaches.

1. Sleep

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults aged 18 to 60 years need to get at least seven or more hours of sleep daily.
Sleep deprivation causes changes in brain chemistry, increasing stress hormones. Leading psychotherapist Kate Yan shares with AIA Voices, "When we go through sleep deprivation our brain function changes are almost equal to the effects of encountering anxiety."
Yan recommends creating a good sleep environment, from the right temperature to quality bedding, and defining the bedtime rituals that work for you to improve sleep quality.
If sleep patterns don’t show improvement, Yan advises seeking the advice of a sleep expert or healthcare provider to identify any underlying causes.

2. Breathe

Breathing is "the gentlest way to get through the response stress cycle," say Emily Nagoski, PhD, and Amelia Nagoski, D.M.A, authors of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle.
"When you don't have time to do anything else, [breathing] can also just siphon off the very worst of [stress], so that you're well enough to continue through the situation," Amelia Nagoski shares on the podcast Dare to Lead.
A breathing exercise can be as simple as tuning into your breath and noticing whether it's shallow or deep. Once you notice your thoughts wandering, redirect your attention to your breathing.

3. Move

Regular exercise can help improve a person's resilience. It also releases endorphins, the "feel-good chemicals" in the brain, which can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.
Any physical activity can help improve mood. Low-intensity exercises, such as stretching and walking, gives a mild workout. Dr Emily Nagoski says this helps release the chemical toxicity in your body created by stress. Physical activity also encourages the development of healthy sleeping patterns.

4. Connect

Social interaction can soothe your emotional exhaustion and tells your body it is okay to relax. (Credit : Shutterstock)
Studies published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology show that exhausted employees tend to become withdrawn. But seeking support and advice from colleagues can help mitigate the pressure of work demands.
Sometimes, the connection can be physical. For example, a study in Frontiers in Psychiatry found that touch produces a calming or stress-relieving effect after reviewing interactions with humans, animals and robotic devices.
A 20-second hug can also increase oxytocin, a hormone and a neurotransmitter often referred to as the love or cuddle hormone. In addition, it positively affects blood pressure and heart rate.

Fill your emotional bank

Mental health experts recommend relaxing non-work activities when you feel daily pressure. But mustering the energy to socialise, much less exercise, can be difficult when you're too tired. Make small changes in your daily life, such as eating healthy food, starting a gratitude journal and taking a break. This will help balance your emotions and reverse the effects of stress in your body.
Boost self-motivation with the help of AIA Vitality and its community of health experts and like-minded individuals. This wellness programme collaborates with clinics, gyms, spas and other lifestyle partners to help you recover from emotional exhaustion and fill your depleted energy bank at work.
Poor mental health and lack of sleep often go hand in hand, says Asher Low, a mental health advocate and a member of the AIA Voices community. Watch as Low explains the connection.
AIA Voices is a community of influential and educational voices from around Asia to talk about life, health and wellness. A platform to educate, motivate and inspire people to make positive behavioural changes on their health and wellness journey. Providing an opportunity for communities across Asia to connect, collaborate, and learn from each other. Designed to drive AIA One Billion, our ambition to engage a billion people to live Healthier, Longer, Better Lives by 2030.
Gallup. 2022. State of the Global Workplace 2022 Report. [online] [Accessed on 17 January 2023]
World Health Organization. 2019. Burnout an "occupational phenomenon": International Classification of Diseases. [online] [Accessed on 17 January 2023]
World Psychiatry. 2016. Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry. [online] [Accessed on 17 January 2023]
Encyclopedia of Stress (Second Edition). 2007. Teaching and Stress. [online] [Accessed on 17 January 2023]
Unlocking Us Podcast. 2020. Burnout and How to Complete the Stress Cycle. [online] [Accessed on 17 January 2023]
International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2021. How to Mitigate the Negative Effect of Emotional Exhaustion among Healthcare Workers: The Role of Safety Climate and Compensation. [online] [Accessed on 17 January 2023]
Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. 2020. Depression: What is burnout? [online] [Accessed on 17 January 2023]
Harvard Business Review. 2020. How to Refuel When You're Feeling Emotionally Drained. [online] [Accessed on 17 January 2023]
Journal Occupational and Organization Psychology. 2019. Crafting social resources on days when you are emotionally exhausted: The role of job insecurity. [online] [Accessed on 17 January 2023]
Behavioral Medicine. 2003. Warm partner contact is related to lower cardiovascular reactivity. [online] [Accessed on 17 January 2023]

This is general information only and is not intended as financial, medical, health, nutritional or other advice. You should obtain professional advice from a financial adviser, or medical or health practitioner in relation to your own personal circumstances.

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