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Putting on a brave face

Hiding your true feelings at work can damage your well-being, research has found.

Murdoch University PhD candidate Steve Brown has researched some of the ways in which health care providers cope with ‘emotional labour’ – the act of suppressing your emotions.

And he has identified which coping strategies work and which do not.

“Emotional labour has long been associated with poor outcomes for employees including emotional exhaustion, depression, detachment and low self-esteem,” Brown said.

“Employers also suffer in terms of high staff turnover.”

As part of his study Brown interviewed 21 nurses from three different nursing groups (emergency, renal dialysis, and palliative care) as well as emergency clerical workers. He also surveyed 325 employees from the same groups.

His study revealed that employees use a variety of strategies to deal with emotional labour, including surface acting, managing natural emotion and deep acting.

“Surface acting is the suppression of felt emotions and the display of unfelt emotion, such as smiling while feeling angry or frustrated,” Brown said.

“We found that this was the least effective response and resulted in poor well-being outcomes.”

The most successful methods were managing natural emotion and deep acting.

“Staff who were encouraged to express natural emotion without becoming overly emotional coped better with emotional labour,” he said.

“For example, a little bit of assertiveness used in the emergency wards against an angry patient is a good thing. Likewise, nurses in palliative care who were allowed to cry without losing control emotionally coped better.”

“Deep acting is when employees get into the required emotional state prior to interactions.”
They prepare by calming themselves and thinking about what’s expected and functional.
“Emergency nurses tend to use deep acting to convey a calm persona while at work.”

Organisational sources of support were found to be the most crucial thing for the employees engaged in emotional labour.

Co-worker support was found to be extremely important, Brown said.

“Nurses told me that they couldn’t do without sharing their experiences with other nurses. Colleagues are empathetic because they’ve been through these situations themselves.

“Having moment to moment support, where another co-worker would approach if a situation between a client and employee was becoming highly charged, was also very useful.”
Organisational support is not only important for the employee – it can reduce staff turnover.

“Organisations can provide support in a number of ways. They can make it clear to employees that they can protect themselves from harm and that abuse will not be tolerated, encourage employee interaction and support of one another, explain the types of strategies that help them cope and provide access to counselling if needed,” said Brown.

The study also showed that emotional labour didn’t always have to be a bad thing.

Brown said: “Interactions with clients often gave employees a great deal of satisfaction, particularly if they felt a sense of achievement, were supported in the organisation and had some autonomy over how they were able to express and constrain emotion.”

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