Old pals' act gives no peace of mind

30th April 2004 at 01:00
A weekly column on how the mind works

Recent psychological research has established that a large part of the stress of working in places such as call centres is the strain of having to be remorselessly cheerful: you have to be happy and helpful with problem customers when all you really want to do is wring their necks.

"Emotional labour" is about the things we have to do every day so we appear fairly reasonable to everyone around us, no matter how ragged we are feeling. Psychologists are increasingly recognising that the mental strain may be more taxing than hard physical toil, and it applies particularly to jobs which involve a lot of people contact - like teaching.

The psychological term "surface level emotional labour" describes the basic fact that a large part of dealing with people at work is about faking it; pretending to have emotions we don't actually feel - feigning interest, sympathy or understanding,for example.

Research by occupational psychologists Celeste Brotheridge and Alicia Grandey at the University of Pennsylvania has found that the more your job requires you to fake emotions, the more likely you are to become emotionally detached from those around you. You also become more detached from your own emotional state (you may not realise how depressed and upset you truly are) and the greater, therefore, your future job dissatisfaction.

It seems there are two key emotional labour tasks required of those in the service sector: to hide negative emotions and to show positive feelings, whatever your state of mind. Psychologists believe constantly hiding any antipathy you feel for colleagues is stressful in itself, but having to go beyond that, and treat hated workmates like best buddies, pushes you nearer to burnout and emotional exhaustion.

In jobs that require high levels of caring - such as nursing and teaching - this negative behaviour can mean your patients or pupils will suffer. You end up feeling ineffective at work and unaccomplished. People in the caring professions are prone to burnout because of the huge amount of personal interaction involved - which means they invest of lot of emotional labour.

But Brotheridge and Grandey's research suggests the main predictor of whether you are likely to suffer from burnout is not the acting you have to do at work, it's the way you try to act. Indeed, they found that in some jobs it was the high emotional labour that predicted a greater sense of personal accomplishment.

The key seems to be whether your emotional labour requires superficial or deep acting. Superficial is where you just pretend to be pleased to see someone, while in reality you're plotting how to cut the brake cables of their car. Deep acting, however, is where you try to change your basic attitudes towards the people you interact with by altering your negative thoughts and deeper feelings.

So, for example, if you are in childcare work, many of the young children you are looking after may eventually get your goat, but you make a conscious effort to remain positive and not snap at them because, deep down, you believe this is a better emotional state to be in rather than being constantly irritated and irritable towards young children.

Brotheridge and Grandey's key finding was that those who seemed to engage in "deep" acting actually found jobs that demanded high levels of emotional labour more personally rewarding. So, if it's the people who are driving you round the bend, you need to find a way of reacting emotionally to them by changing your deeper attitudes. Then you might actually begin to enjoy your work.

Dr Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley hospital and senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. He is a fellow of University College London, and author of From the Edge of the Couch published by Bantam Press, pound;12.99. Email: rajpersaud@tes.co.uk

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