Cubicle Karenina

A novel approach to understanding the drivers of engagement and exhaustion at work

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy

The famous opening line of Tolstoy’s masterpiece, Anna Karenina, packs a wallop of wisdom in its keen observation of the collective human condition.

In the nearly 150 years since its publication, all manner of scientists have tested the author’s hypothesis in numerous realms of life. Now researchers at the University of Washington Foster School of Business have applied it to the workplace—whether physical, virtual or a bit of both.

Their conclusion? Engaged employees are all alike; every exhausted employee is exhausted in their own way.

Or, to put it another way, a common suite of factors—reasonable workload and emotional demands, and ample autonomy, social support and feedback—must be present for us to be engaged and energized at our jobs. When even one of these factors is missing, we tend to feel exhausted… each in our own distinctive way.

Michael Johnson

“Our work suggests that there are many pathways to exhaustion at work, while a single path leads to engagement,” says co-author Michael Johnson, a professor of management and the Boeing Company Endowed Professor in Business Management at the Foster School.

Professional “happiness”

In that iconic tone-setting opener, Tolstoy implies that families require an unbroken set of positive circumstances to be truly content. Among them, health, fidelity, financial security and mutual affection. Discontent thrives on a deficiency in any one or more of these categories.

But what about employees in organizations? After all, we often spend more waking hours at work than we do with our own families.

To devise a novel way to measure the causes of professional engagement and exhaustion, Johnson collaborated with Wei Jee Ong (PhD 2021), a former Foster doctoral student who is now an assistant professor of management and organization at the National University of Singapore.

Demands and resources

Johnson and Ong designed a series of studies that considered the effects on engagement and exhaustion of two common demands:

  • Workload – the expectation of productivity, which can be reasonable or overwhelming.
  • Emotional labor – work that is emotionally taxing or requires the suppression of negative feelings.

And three key resources:

  • Autonomy – the authority to act—within boundaries—without seeking approval.
  • Social support – backing from supervisors or colleagues (which is difficult to replicate online).
  • Feedback – frequent words of evaluation are important, whether positive or negative.

Conventional theory had assumed a proportionally linear relationship between these demands and resources and feelings of engagement or exhaustion. So, for instance, exhaustion levels should increase in step with workload. And engagement should track with degrees of autonomy.

Researchers also had widely believed that increased resources could buffer the effect of high demands. So, increasing social support should mitigate the exhaustion associated with overwork.

This new study put these notions on notice.

Surveys say…

Johnson and Ong conducted surveys—before and during the pandemic—with several different groups, including a random sample of professionals, Microsoft employees and Foster School alumni.

While the methodology used in prior research could only test what demands and resources affect exhaustion and engagement on average, Ong and Johnson deployed a new method known as “fuzzy set qualitative comparative analysis.” This allowed them to determine which specific configurations or combinations of demands and resources lead to people becoming exhausted.

A pioneering color photograph of Leo Tolstoy in 1908 by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky.

They did not find these causal relationships to be proportional.

And they detected no evidence that greater resources buffer the negative effects of overbearing demands. On the contrary, they discovered that all the resource and demand conditions needed to be satisfied to achieve engagement.

That is, people require autonomy, social support and feedback plus reasonable workload and emotional investment to be fully engaged at their jobs.

And no amount of autonomy or feedback or support—or even extra compensation, according to a related finding—will prevent exhaustive burnout in someone who is chronically overworked or emotionally spent.

Gut reaction

In a final part of the study, Johnson and Ong explored effects beyond exhaustion. Additional surveys established that the same multitude of factor combinations that cause employee exhaustion can also trigger somatic manifestations of stress and an intention to quit.

The researchers noted a greater prevalence of physiological symptoms of stress—such as upset stomach, neck or back pain, headaches, muscle tension—in people who reported experiencing high workload, heavy emotional demands, low autonomy, little support or insufficient feedback (or some or all of the above).

Any combination of high demands and low resources can lead to exhaustion, physical ailments and intentions to quit.

And while there can be myriad reasons for quitting a job, Johnson says that people reporting no intention of joining the “Great Resignation” tended to be those without high workloads or heavy emotional demands and who enjoy autonomy, social support and feedback.

“Again, all happy families are alike,” he says. “Unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.”

Firms of endearment

Johnson cautions that he and Ong categorized engagement and exhaustion in their extreme states. And though they measured resources and demands on a continuum, they specified only high or low levels of each for the analysis.

But even in the abstract, their findings shed important light on the combinations of common factors that render workers either engaged in their jobs or exhausted, ill and wanting to quit.

Employees who encounter low workloads and emotional demands and receive ample social support, autonomy and feedback are most likely to feel engaged. Those deficient in even one of these areas are likely to feel exhausted.

Many organizations are working to provide the comprehensive balance of demands and resources that leads to engagement. Raj Sisodia of Babson College calls these “Firms of Endearment,” which emphasize care, passion and purpose as a path to profit without burnout.

Johnson advises firms that wish to endear themselves to first find out how their employees perceive the demands and resources they experience at work. A well-designed survey is a good place to start. It should be personalized, rather than anonymous (which would only capture enterprise-wide trends). And it should be repeated at regular intervals to measure the trajectory of feelings.

“If you’re trying to keep your employees from becoming exhausted, sickened by stress and wanting to quit, then you need to figure out why they are exhausted,” Johnson says. “If you want employees who are engaged and happy to stay, then you need to give them reasonable workloads and emotional demands, high levels of autonomy, social support and feedback. You need to work on all these factors.”

Happy employees, it appears, really are all alike.

Towards a Configural Theory of Job Demands and Resources” is forthcoming in the Academy of Management Journal.

Ed Kromer Managing Editor Foster School

Ed Kromer is the managing editor of Foster Business magazine. Over the past two decades, he has served as the school’s senior storyteller, writing about a wide array people, programs, insights and innovations that power the Foster School community.