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Just acting the part ...?

Dr Raj Persaud
Consultant Psychiatrist
Maudsley Hospital, London

Psychological research has shown that a large part of the stress of working in telephone call centres is the strain of having to be endlessly cheerful to callers. The so-called "have a nice day" syndrome concerns the "emotional labour" we have to do to keep ourselves appearing reasonable to all around us, no matter how we are really feeling - to smilingly absorb the difficulties of dealing with problematic people, when really we want to wring their necks!

Psychologists are now increasingly recognising that this emotional labour may in fact be more mentally taxing than the more physical toil required of us in the past. This is ironic news for nurses, who have long experienced the emotional labour of remaining relentlessly emotionally involved with their patients day in day out without anyone before remarking on the huge strain involved.

Psychologists recognise that a large part of dealing with people at work is "faking it", or pretending to display emotions we don't actually feel. But new research has found that the more your job requires you to do this, the more likely you are to become emotionally detached from those around you and from your own emotional state, and the greater your future job dissatisfaction will be.

It seems that there are two key emotional labour tasks required of those who are in the service sector: to hide negative emotions and to display positive feelings, even when these are not residing within one. Psychologists believe that constantly hiding the deep hatred you feel for colleagues and patients might be fairly stressful in itself, but having to go beyond this and portray positive emotions when you really feel the opposite must be even worse and surely pushes you nearer to "burnout".

Burnout is the state of mind you achieve as a result of stressful work when you feel spent and so suffering from emotional exhaustion. You then display a detached attitude towards others, rather than genuinely caring for them. As a result of this you won't experience a sense of effectiveness and personal accomplishment.

Burnout is strongly linked to a tendency to hate your work and lowered performance in your duties. It's also possible to see that this personal detachment in jobs that require high levels of caring such as nursing and teaching could even be positively dangerous, resulting in such negative behaviour towards patients or clients that they end up suffering grievously as a result.

However, the very latest research on the link between burnout and emotional labour suggests that the key issue isn't the acting you have to do at work. It's actually the way you try to act that predicts whether you are going to suffer from burnout or not. Indeed, in some jobs it's the high emotional labour that actually predicts a greater sense of personal accomplishment.

The key seems to be whether at work you are performing emotional labour requiring "superficial" acting or "deep" acting. Superficial acting is where you just pretend to be pleased to see someone while deep down you are plotting how to cut the brake cables of their car. Deep acting, on the other hand, is where you try to change your basic attitudes towards the people you interact with by altering your thoughts and deeper feelings, so as to try to make them more positive to those around you.

The key finding is that those who seem to engage in deep acting actually found that jobs demanding high levels of emotional labour were more personally rewarding. So, if it's the people at work who you feel are driving you round the bend, you need to find a way of emotionally reacting to them by changing your deeper attitudes. As a result you will actually begin to enjoy your work more.

You set about "deep acting" by thinking about the way serious actors research a part. If, for example, they are to play the role of a cop, they will go and hang out with real policemen, immerse themselves in that world and adopt a role model who is used as motivation. However, it is important to understand that, like real actors, you cannot put in an Oscar-winning performance every day.