Job burnout, defined as a state of exhaustion and cynicism towards work [1
], has become an established focus of scholars’ attention in the last few decades. Some scholars describe burnout as an epidemic [2
]. On May 28th, 2019, the World Health Organization announced that burnout had been included in the 11th Revision of International Classification of Diseases (ICD−11) as an occupational phenomenon [3
]. Emotional exhaustion, the core dimension of burnout [4
], is not only detrimental to employees’ physical and mental health, but is also harmful to enterprises’ sustainable development. According to previous studies, employees who become emotionally exhausted display sabotage behaviors, poor performance, high turnover intentions, and so on [5
]. Unfortunately, emotional exhaustion is a widespread phenomenon, especially among frontline service employees. This is because frontline service employees have to regulate and maintain positive emotions in order to meet customers’ needs. Influenced by certain aspects of Chinese culture, such as high-power distance, Chinese frontline service employees undertake their duties following these normative requirements and endure any grievances that arise [8
]. With an increase in pressure, their work not only drains their physical and mental energy, but also their emotional energy. By 2018, 44.6% Chinese employees worked in the services industry, according to the 2019 China Statistical Yearbook
]. China, the world’s most populous country, has an enormous number of frontline service employees. Therefore, it may be seen as meaningful for research to pay attention to these workers.
For employees, their supervisor acts as the agent of the organization and plays an important role in the former’s emotional exhaustion [10
]. To date, ethical leadership has been proven to have an effect upon employees in areas such as task performance [11
], voice behavior [12
], helping behavior [13
], etc. Given its significance in the current organizational context, this study introduces ethical leadership into the field of emotional exhaustion.
Conservation of resources theory (hereinafter referred to as COR theory) has been widely adopted across the field of research into burnout [14
]. From the standpoint of COR theory, ethical leadership offers a kind of resource for employees. Organizational embeddedness on behalf of a state of resources overabundance [15
]. With access to resources, frontline service employees may develop organizational embeddedness [17
]. On the other hand, embedded employees have more resources [17
] and can utilize the latter to alleviate emotional exhaustion. Thus, the current study took organizational embeddedness as a way to explore how ethical leadership affect frontline service employees’ emotional exhaustion.
Even if the active role of ethical leadership has been generally recognized, some studies have indicated that situational factors can influence employees’ perception of ethical leadership, meaning ethical leadership has different effects in different situations [18
]. As a vital situational factor, job satisfaction may be seen as a positive emotional state, whereby an organization’s members evaluate their work or work environment [19
]. Hence, the current study chose job satisfaction to discuss the boundary condition of the effects of ethical leadership on organizational embeddedness, and organizational embeddedness on emotional exhaustion.
Based on COR theory, this study creates a moderated mediation model to investigate how ethical leadership influences frontline service employees’ emotional exhaustion. Through this study, we provide a new organizational perspective for the alleviation of these employees’ emotional exhaustion. A key implication emerging from this research is that organizations should focus on the improvement of ethical leadership. With regard to organizational embeddedness, we further discuss the internal mechanism of how ethical leadership affects frontline service employees’ emotional exhaustion. These findings enrich the literature about the influential mechanisms of ethical leadership. Finally, job satisfaction was used to explore the boundary condition. When job satisfaction was high, ethical leadership was found to have a greater positive impact on organizational embeddedness. To better leverage the role of ethical leadership, this research signals that organizations need to focus on improving employees’ job satisfaction.
1.1. Ethical Leadership and Emotional Exhaustion
Ethical leadership not only demonstrates ethical behavior, but also inspires subordinates’ similar behavior by formulating rules, rewards, and punishments [18
]. Previous studies have shown that supervisors’ ethical leadership has a positive impact on their subordinates [20
]. For instance, such leadership can influence commitment, motivation, optimism, satisfaction, task performance, and organizational citizenship behavior [22
]. Emotional exhaustion refers to a fatigued state due to the excessive consumption of psychological and emotional resources [26
]. According to a previous study, emotional exhaustion can be influenced by situational factors [27
]. Leadership is always an important situational factor in the organizational context [28
] because subordinates always treat their supervisors as the organization’s agents. As a result of the increasing emphasis on social responsibility and business ethics, increasing numbers of researchers have begun to pay attention to the notion of ethical leadership [29
]. Consistent with this trend, in the current paper we aim to analyze the impact of ethical leadership on frontline service employees’ emotional exhaustion and its mechanisms.
According to COR theory, people have a tendency to actively acquire, maintain, and protect what they think are valuable resources [30
]. Ethical leadership can help frontline service employees gain access to more valued resources in the following ways. First, ethical leaders provide moral models (integrity, sincerity, etc.). This enables frontline service employees to have a trusting and optimistic view of their leaders and of the organization as a whole. Second, ethical leaders act in ways consistent with moral values. This can help frontline service employees to develop a long-term attachment to their leaders and organizations, which can effectively reduce their worries and uncertainty about the future. Third, ethical leaders encourage frontline service employees’ moral behavior and punish immoral behavior. Under such circumstances, frontline service employees will be friendly and respect each other. Thus, conflicts among colleagues are reduced and frontline service employees suffer less resource depletion. Fourth, ethical leaders treat frontline service employees fairly, pay attention to two-way communication, and help them solve work-related problems. This can stimulate the frontline service employees’ enthusiasm and vitality, in turn endowing them with the belief and ability required to access more valued resources. The development of burnout can be buffered by job resources [1
]. Owning these resources can provide support for individual values and thus reduce emotional exhaustion [31
]. In short, frontline service employees regard ethical leadership as a kind of resource, meaning that it helps to reduce emotional exhaustion. Hence, we put forward the following hypothesis:
Ethical leadership will be negatively associated with emotional exhaustion.
1.2. The Mediating Effect of Organizational Embeddedness
Lee, et al. [32
] define job embeddedness as an extent of an employee’s “stuckness”, or enmeshing, resulting from numerous forces. Among the collection of forces which prevent individuals from leaving, job embeddedness can be divided into two aspects: organizational embeddedness and community embeddedness [33
]. Due to the organizational context being the research focus at hand, we focused on organizational embeddedness in this research. Mitchell, et al. [34
] proposed that organizational embeddedness included three sub-dimensions: fit, link, and sacrifice. ‘Fit’ refers to the compatibility between employees and organizations with regard to skills and values. ‘Link’ includes formal and informal connections between employees, colleagues and the organization as a whole. ‘Sacrifice’ refers to what employees have to give up when they leave the organization. As mentioned earlier, ethical leadership is proposed to have a negative effect on emotional exhaustion. We further propose the mediating role of organizational embeddedness.
Based on COR theory, the resources that frontline service employees receive from ethical leadership [35
] can lead to an increase in organizational embeddedness. Specifically, ethical leaders guide and motivate frontline service employees to work towards organizational goals and to understand and identify with organizational values. Thus, ethical leadership enhances the compatibility between frontline service employees and their organizations, i.e., fit. Ethical leaders also promote altruistic behavior by acting as role models and striving to create a harmonious organizational climate. In such an atmosphere, frontline service employees become more cooperative and devoted to the organization—in other words, the link factor is strengthened. In addition, ethical leaders can also be reliable leaders who provide sustainable resources. Therefore, for frontline service employees, leaving would incur a loss, that is, a sacrifice. In short, ethical leadership can promote employee’s organizational embeddedness through improving the level of fit, link, and sacrifice [34
]. When frontline service employees have a higher level of organizational embeddedness, they have access to more useful and supportive resources. This is because, with a high level of organizational embeddedness, they are more likely to identify with the organizational mission, have a high investment in teamwork and frequent interaction relationships, and present a positive performance. It is conducive for frontline service employees to better complete their work tasks and protect their emotional resources, which can, in turn, lead to them suffering less emotional exhaustion, which is a negative outcome caused by resource depletion [36
From the perspective of resource acquisition, the resources that frontline service employees acquire from ethical leadership enhance their organizational embeddedness. From the perspective of resource utilization, organizational embeddedness alleviates employees’ emotional exhaustion which is caused by resource depletion. To summarize, organizational embeddedness reflects the two processes of resource acquisition and resource utilization, and reflects the influence of ethical leadership on emotional exhaustion [37
]. Therefore, we predict the following:
Organizational embeddedness will mediate the negative relationship between ethical leadership and emotional exhaustion.
1.3. The Moderating Effects of Job Satisfaction
In spite of the positive effect of ethical leadership being generally recognized, some scholars have pointed out that situational factors will affect the effects of ethical leadership [18
]. For example, injustice will weaken the positive effect of ethical leadership on employees [38
]. Leader authenticity will interfere with employees’ positive judgment of ethical leadership [39
]. Job satisfaction, an important boundary condition, refers to a positive emotional state relating to how an organization’s members evaluate their work or work environment [19
]. On one hand, job satisfaction can be seen as influencing frontline service employees’ rating of ethical leadership. On the other hand, job satisfaction can be regarded as a kind of resource [19
When frontline service employees experience a high level of job satisfaction, their sense of identity and trust in leaders will be enhanced. They can fully understand ethical leadership and regard ethical leaders as their role models. Thus, motivated by the recognition of ethical leadership, frontline service employees can increase their connection to the organizations and experience a higher degree of organizational embeddedness. On the contrary, frontline service employees who have a low level of job satisfaction are suspicious of their organization and leaders. Under these circumstances, even if ethical leaders exhibit positive behavior, such employees will scarcely feel good will, and are unable to rely on leaders. These employees would, therefore, be unwilling to further integrate into the organizations. On the basis of the above analysis, we posit the following:
Job satisfaction will moderate the positive relationship between ethical leadership and organizational embeddedness, such that this relationship will be stronger when job satisfaction is high and weaker when job satisfaction is low.
According to COR theory, frontline service employees with more resources will be more resilient to stress. Job satisfaction may also be seen as a kind of resource in this context [19
]. Frontline service employees with a high degree of job satisfaction tend to obtain more supportive resources owing to their organizational embeddedness. When frontline service employees have more resources with which to respond to job demands, they experience less emotional exhaustion. On the contrary, in order to protect their resources, frontline service employees experiencing low job satisfaction will take action to prevent further resource depletion [31
]. Thus, they have fewer available resources to deal with emotional exhaustion. Simultaneously, the effect of organizational embeddedness on emotional exhaustion will be weakened. We thus hypothesize the following:
Job satisfaction will moderate the negative relationship between organizational embeddedness and emotional exhaustion, such that this relationship will be stronger when job satisfaction is high and weaker when job satisfaction is low.
Combining the above analyses, frontline service employees with a higher degree of job satisfaction have a clearer understanding of ethical leadership and are more inclined to regard ethical leaders as a reliable source of resources, resulting in these employees’ higher organizational embeddedness. At the same time, frontline service employees with higher job satisfaction are more active in their work and more deeply embedded in their organization. They are good at using organizational resources to respond to work needs, which results in less emotional exhaustion. Therefore, the higher the level of employees’ job satisfaction, the stronger the mediating role of organizational embeddedness in the relationship between ethical leadership and employees’ emotional exhaustion. As such, we put forward the following, final hypothesis:
Job satisfaction will moderate the indirect effect of ethical leadership on emotional exhaustion via organizational embeddedness, such that the indirect effect will be stronger when job satisfaction is high.
In summary, we propose a moderated mediation model, as shown in Figure 1