Depletion In The Workplace: How it Happens, What it Means, and How to Manage it

[vc_row css_animation="" row_type="row" use_row_as_full_screen_section="no" type="full_width" angled_section="no" text_align="left" background_image_as_pattern="without_pattern"][vc_column][vc_column_text]

Be honest with yourself:

How often do you come home at the end of a workday feeling exhausted and at the end of your rope? If your honest answer is anything other than “too often”, you can consider yourself incredibly lucky. Unfortunately, for the rest of us, the experience of depletion is a very real obstacle that stands in the way of us meeting our full potential. Importantly, however, you may not be aware of just how much of an obstacle it can be. The purpose of this blog is to shed some light on this process by outlining (1) the specific mechanism that explains how depletion occurs, (2) what the experience of depletion means for you and those around you, and (3) how best to manage it in the workplace.


Self-regulation refers to our capacity to override the urges, behaviours, and desires that conflict with how we feel we should act[1]. For example, dieters often feel conflicted between the desire to eat fatty foods and the more long-term goal of losing weight and improving health. It is acts of self-regulation that allow us to inhibit those immediate short-term desires (eating fatty foods) so that we can successfully meet our more long-term goals (losing weight and improving our health). Self-regulation research has also demonstrated that self-regulation can take several different forms. For example, self-regulation is required for everything from controlling your attention and your thoughts, to controlling your emotions and processing complex cognitive or social problems.

Research on the limited strength model of self-regulation, however, has demonstrated that our capacity to engage in self-regulation can be depleted – a state known as ego depletion.[2] To illustrate, think of how a muscle works as you exercise. You may easily have the strength to lift a heavy weight at the beginning of your workout, but as you complete more repetitions, it becomes increasingly more difficult to lift the weight as your muscle starts to tire. Your self-regulation “muscle” operates the same way – continuously engaging in acts of self-regulation can deplete our muscle’s ability to engage in other self-regulatory behaviours until we become depleted ourselves. We have all experienced it – that feeling that you are run down, at the end of your rope, and one wrong move away from snapping. What you may not know, however, is just how influential this feeling of depletion can be.


Understanding depletion in the workplace is particularly important for two reasons. First, people must constantly regulate their behaviour at work.[3] For example, you regulate your behaviour every time you persist on difficult tasks instead of procrastinating or every time you resist speaking up when you shouldn’t in a meeting. This means that over the course of an average day, you are repeatedly using and depleting your self-regulatory muscle, which explains why you often come home at the end of the day feeling as if your mental resources have been drained.

This is particularly important because while these feelings of cognitive and physical exhaustion are hard enough to manage on their own, the experience of depletion can have major consequences on who you are and what you do at work that you may not be aware of. Remember, depletion is often more than just fatigue; it occurs when the resources we need to control our behaviour have been drained and this can have a number of consequences for you, your organization, and the people around you. For example, when you are depleted, you are more likely to experience negative emotions such as anger and sadness because you are lacking the resources normally required to manage these emotions. In terms of organizational consequences, depletion has been associated with lower levels of performance and higher levels of unethical behaviour at work.[4] In other words, when you are depleted, you may be more susceptible to unethical pressures at work because the mental resources you would normally use to act the way you know you should act have been drained.

Possibly most telling, however, is how the experience of depletion can affect how we treat others. Research has shown that depleted individuals are more aggressive, abusive and unfair towards others.[5] Moreover, depletion that emerges in the workplace can also bleed into your personal life and has been associated with increased levels of violence towards intimate partners at home[6]. Studies have also shown that when you are depleted, you are less likely to help others and go out of your way to be there for your coworkers. Taken together, this paints a pretty unpleasant picture of who you may be when you are depleted, doesn’t it? And for those of you who are thinking, “this doesn’t sound like me”, unfortunately, research has also demonstrated that depletion can affect our self-awareness such that you may not even be aware that you are not being the person you want to be.[7]

Reading all of this may seem daunting, especially in the working world where depletion and the need for self-regulation may seem so prevalent and unavoidable. Thankfully, however, we do not have to be helpless to depletion and with the right approach, we can manage these effects.


As you can probably imagine, the best defense against depletion is a proactive one – limiting the extent of depletion before it occurs. Things like maintaining a healthy diet and regular exercise schedule and giving yourself adequate time to rest are three key cogs in the wheel when it comes to maintaining your mental resources. Ironically, while these are essential cogs in the effective management of depletion, they are often the first things we abandon when the going gets tough. We are most likely to eat that Big Mac at the end of a crazy day and we are most likely to skip our run in the middle of a busy week. However, to best manage depletion, it is important to maintain healthy routines as a first line of defense. Schedule set workout times during the week and stick to them, no matter how busy you feel. Make healthy lunches the night before busy days so you are not tempted to just grab something quick and fatty in the midst of the clamor. At first glance, it may seem like this approach is simply adding more to busy days, but these healthy routines will help you maintain your focus and meet your full potential over the course of the day so you can finish your work more effectively and more efficiently.

It is true, however, that sometimes life simply gets in the way and upholding these healthy habits is easier said than done. While a proactive approach to depletion is always the best approach, there are also ways to minimize the effects of depletion reactively. Importantly, overcoming self-awareness gaps is a critical first step. As mentioned, depleted individuals often experience significant gaps between how they think they are acting and how they are actually acting. This means that being honest and reflective about when our resources feel low is a key step in managing depletion. If you are aware of this depletion, research has shown that there are effective strategies to manage depletion. For example, research has demonstrated that quick doses of glucose can help replenish your capacity to engage in effective self-control.[8] Look to take 15-20g of healthy carbohydrates such as an apple or yogurt for a self-control boost. Research has also demonstrated how experiencing positive social interactions and social support can replenish self-regulatory resources.[9] This is where your social network comes in – make the most of the people around you and have a quick visit with someone at work you are especially close with. You will be surprised at how much even a quick chat can help!


You are probably reading this because you have a tendency to push yourself a little too hard, like so many of us do. And that approach to work can be incredibly rewarding, but it can also be incredibly depleting and you may not be aware of just how much this depletion can affect your mood, your relationships, and your performance. But this does not mean that we have to be helpless – sometimes all it takes is a healthy dose of awareness! It may seem ironic to actively fight against depletion, but as long as we fight back in the right way with the right routines, we can help ourselves meet our full potential – and really, what more can you ask for? 

[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]Post By: Dave Whiteside

Whiteside-7[1] copy-min[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]References:

[1] Baumeister, R. F., Heatherton, T. F., & Tice, D. M. 1994. Losing control: How and why people fail at self-regulation. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

[2] Muraven, M., & Baumeister, R. F. 2000. Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological Bulletin, 126: 247-259.

[3] Lord, R. G., Diefendorff, J. M., Schmidt, A. M., & Hall, R. J. 2010. Self-regulation at work. Annual Review of Psychology, 61: 543-568.

[4] Hagger, M. S., Wood, C., Stiff, C., & Chatzisarantis, N. L. D. 2010. Ego depletion and the strength model of self-control: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136: 495-525.

[5] Hagger, M. S., Wood, C., Stiff, C., & Chatzisarantis, N. L. D. 2010. Ego depletion and the strength model of self-control: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136: 495-525.

[6] Finkel, E. J., DeWall, C. N., Slotter, E. B., Oaten, M., & Foshee, V. A. 2009. Self-regulatory failure and intimate partner violence perpetration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97: 483-499.

[7] Whiteside & Barclay. 2015. The effects of depletion on fair behavior: When wanting to be fair isn’t enough.

[8] Gailliot, M. T., Baumeister, R. F., DeWall., C. N., Maner, J. K., Plant, E. A., Tice, D. M. Brewer, L. E., & Schmeichel, B. J. 2007. Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92: 325-336.

[9] Johnson, R. E., Lanaj, K., & Barnes, C. M. 2014. The good and bad of being fair: Effects of procedural and interpersonal justice behaviors on regulatory resources. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99: 635-650.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]