‘Burnout is a syndrome of emotional exhaustion and cynicism that occurs frequently among individuals who do ‘‘people-work’’.
Whilst few jobs today do not involve any contact with other people, ‘people-work’ is a term that some use to refer more specifically to those occupations that have as their focus interaction with other people; usually those outside of the organization, for example, customers or patients, rather than colleagues, superiors or subordinates. Some argue that it is ‘the level of emotional demands in an occupation’ that determine the degree to which the job can be categorized as ‘people-work’. Such emotional work demands include the frequency of interactions with clients/customers and the job expectations to express (and suppress) certain emotions or emotional expressions. It is the high level of these emotional demands that is thought to contribute to negative health outcomes such as stress and burnout for the people-worker; indeed, Brotheridge and Grandey report studies suggesting that employees with ‘people-work’ occupational titles (defined as those with higher levels of emotional demands) report significantly higher levels of stress than do other workers.
The emotional demands of ‘people-work’ have been examined in the context of a wide range of professions, such as flight attendants, restaurant workers, supermarket clerks, nurses, call centre workers, midwives, police officers, medical students, theme park ride operators, fast food servers, beauticians, paralegals and even debt collectors, but no study to date has included the professions of counseling or guidance within its remit. This paper will argue that this is an important omission, since these professions are likely to share many of the emotional demands that others experience (and, indeed, arguably more, since duration of interactions*/thought to be a contributor to emotional demand*/is likely to be longer) and this, as will be argued, can have potentially serious consequences for the health of the worker. In addition, it could be argued that the consequences of the counselor of not adhering to the emotional demands of the job (perhaps by allowing genuine but inappropriate emotion to ‘leak’) could have more serious implications for the well-being of the client than such lapses might have in other industries*/which in itself could add to the pressure to meet emotional expectations. In the absence of such studies, however, it will be argued in the current paper that the lessons learned from the study of allied professions (particularly nursing) in terms of coping with the stress produced by the emotional demands of ‘people-work’ should be extrapolated and taken on board by those working within the guidance and counseling professions.
This paper then will discuss (1) the emotional demands inherent in many ‘people-work’ jobs, paying particular attention to those work spheres that could be considered to have the most in common with the counseling and guidance profession, (2) the emotion management that is often required in order to meet these work demands and that could be considered a key skill of ‘people-work’, (3) the evidence suggesting that such emotion management or ‘emotional labor’, whilst benefiting the client enormously, could be a significant source of stress for the worker, and finally (4) intervention strategies for coping with these demands and stressors.
The emotional demands of ‘people-work’
Rafaeli and Sutton ask the question, ‘when a food server at McDonald’s smiles at you, is it because he or she likes you?’. Not necessarily, they answer, since researchers have shown that people are skilled at presenting facial expressions that are inconsistent with their internal feelings. There is no simple match between the emotions that organizational members feel and the emotions that they are expected to express. As Hochschild points out ‘we are capable of disguising what we feel and of pretending to feel what we do not’ (p. 33). This ability to exercise cognitive control means that organizational members can follow formal and informal expectations that they display certain emotions and that the sentiments they express may be unrelated to, or even in conflict with, their true feelings.
These formal and informal expectations are termed display rules , or ‘behavioral expectations about which emotions ought to be expressed and which ought to be hidden’ and are generally a function of ‘societal norms, occupational norms and organizational norms’. For some professions, these display rules are bound up tightly within organizational norms to such an extent that a given organization will have specified and prescribed rules about which emotions they expect their employees to express. For example, a manual produced by McDonald’s ‘Hamburger University’ states that servers must ‘display desirable traits such as sincerity, enthusiasm, confidence and a sense of humor’, whilst Safeway supermarket workers are told in training manuals to ‘be friendly with the customers’ and even to ‘read the customer’s name off the check and use the name when thanking the customer’. Such organizations often go to ‘considerable effort’ to ensure that their employees will abide by display rules; they might use special ‘animation tests’ in order to select only those employees able to display the ‘normative exaggerated enthusiasm’, use manuals and training to reinforce the message once selected, and even use rewards and punishments for adhering (or not) to the required display rules.
For other professions, display rules are less tightly prescribed and tend to be reinforced more by socialization processes than by official means. Thus, for example, a new nurse describes how she was socialized by her colleagues into hiding any emotional displays considered too extreme; ‘the first child I saw die [I was] crying and I was told pretty clearly that that wasn’t the way to go on, and to keep a stiff upper lip . . . Externally I spent a lot of time covering up emotions’ (Henderson, 2001, p. 134).
Within many job-roles, however, neither formal display rules, nor socialization processes are necessary to enforce appropriate emotional display; for example, whilst the need for a degree of emotional detachment by nurses seems to be encouraged by socialization processes (as illustrated by the previous quote), most nurses value ‘emotional engagement’ as critical to excellent nursing care and need no rules or social encouragement to engage in this way. In other words, many within the ‘caring’ professions, such as nursing, want to display emotions that concur with societal expectations (e.g. concern and sympathy). Such emotional expectations tend not to be prescribed by the organization, and, indeed, many workers within the caring professions display appropriate emotions only because they want to and see it as an important part of the job-role, rather than because their employer (or colleague) demands it. In this case, the rules about emotional display are referred to not as display rules , but as more internalized feeling rules.
- Mann, Sandi, ‘People-work’: emotion management, stress and coping, Journal of Guidance & Counselling, May 2004, Vol. 32, Issue 2.
Reflection Exercise #10
The preceding section contained information
about an introduction to the emotional demands of “people-work”. Write Write
three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section
in your practice.
What are ‘display rules’? Record the letter of the correct answer