The language of healthcare worker emotional exhaustion: A linguistic analysis of longitudinal survey.

Journal Article (Journal Article)


Emotional exhaustion (EE) rates in healthcare workers (HCWs) have reached alarming levels and been linked to worse quality of care. Prior research has shown linguistic characteristics of writing samples can predict mental health disorders. Understanding whether linguistic characteristics are associated with EE could help identify and predict EE.


To examine whether linguistic characteristics of HCW writing associate with prior, current, and future EE.

Design setting and participants

A large hospital system in the Mid-West had 11,336 HCWs complete annual quality improvement surveys in 2019, and 10,564 HCWs in 2020. Surveys included a measure of EE, an open-ended comment box, and an anonymous identifier enabling HCW responses to be linked across years. Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) software assessed the frequency of one exploratory and eight a priori hypothesized linguistic categories in written comments. Analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) assessed associations between these categories and past, present, and future HCW EE adjusting for the word count of comments. Comments with <20 words were excluded.

Main outcomes and measures

The frequency of the linguistic categories (word count, first person singular, first person plural, present focus, past focus, positive emotion, negative emotion, social, power) in HCW comments were examined across EE quartiles.


For the 2019 and 2020 surveys, respondents wrote 3,529 and 3,246 comments, respectively, of which 2,101 and 1,418 comments (103,474 and 85,335 words) contained ≥20 words. Comments using more negative emotion (p < 0.001), power (i.e., references relevant to status, dominance, and social hierarchies, e.g., own, order, and allow) words (p < 0.0001), and words overall (p < 0.001) were associated with higher current and future EE. Using positive emotion words (p < 0.001) was associated with lower EE in 2019 (but not 2020). Contrary to hypotheses, using more first person singular (p < 0.001) predicted lower current and future EE. Past and present focus, first person plural, and social words did not predict EE. Current EE did not predict future language use.


Five linguistic categories predicted current and subsequent HCW EE. Notably, EE did not predict future language. These linguistic markers suggest a language of EE, offering insights into EE's etiology, consequences, measurement, and intervention. Future use of these findings could include the ability to identify and support individuals and units at high risk of EE based on their linguistic characteristics.

Full Text

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Belz, FF; Adair, KC; Proulx, J; Frankel, AS; Sexton, JB

Published Date

  • January 2022

Published In

Volume / Issue

  • 13 /

Start / End Page

  • 1044378 -

PubMed ID

  • 36590605

Pubmed Central ID

  • PMC9800594

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 1664-0640

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 1664-0640

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.3389/fpsyt.2022.1044378


  • eng