Bauer Researcher Studies Employee Emotional Exhaustion

Published on October 15, 2018

Associate Professor Tony Kong

Customized work arrangements are generally thought to produce good outcomes for both employers and their employees.

According to numerous studies done in the past decade, employers that offer flexible hours and/or work location, a special type of compensation plan, or an agreement to confine employees’ work tasks to those that match their interests and skillset, are likely to have happier, more productive employees who are willing to go the extra mile for their employers.

However, a new study from Bauer College Associate Professor Dejun “Tony” Kong, who has published many works in leading academic journals on topics including trust, positive organizational behavior and workplace diversity, identifies a shadow side of such idiosyncratic deals (i-deals), particularly related to work tasks — the potential for co-workers to react negatively to an arrangement that works so well for a fellow employee.

“It’s very commonplace for people to compare what they have in the workplace with what their coworkers have,” Kong said. “When a co-worker sees another employee getting a better deal, they can feel inferior or envious, which can lead to emotional exhaustion. Emotionally exhausted employees are more like to engage in counterproductive behaviors — withdrawing from work, leaving work early, calling in sick, when actually, they’re not.”

Making things worse, the study, which analyzed 131 pairs of co-workers, found that feeling emotionally exhausted in the workplace is contagious, said Kong.

“The net benefit to employers that are granting customized employment arrangements might not be as large as people thought,” he said.

The findings don’t nullify a large body of research that has found customizing employment arrangements is an effective tool for motivating and retaining employees, Kong said. But in order to reap the benefits, employers must also create an environment of fairness and transparency in order to reduce negative social comparison, which can be counterproductive, he said.

“It is probably wiser and more beneficial for employers to take a holistic approach and consider customizing i-deals about work tasks for everybody,” Kong said.

The paper by Kong and two colleagues, “Employee and coworker idiosyncratic deals: implications for emotional exhaustion and deviant behaviors,” recently appeared in the Journal of Business Ethics.

By Julie Bonnin