Whilst using positive emotions is often encouraged at work, Karen Drury examines the view that getting ‘excessively personal’ might actually be harmful to employees.
The recent review of the NHS by Lord Darzi has much focus on the personalisation of patient care – including patient choice of treatment and provider. In addition, one news report talked of treating patients as people, no longer as numbers.
While no-one could argue that being treated as an individual rather than a case must be better for patients, there are ramifications for those who work in the NHS, whose own wellbeing might be at risk.
Organisations have traditionally mistrusted emotion, considering it the very opposite of rationality – which achieves organisational ends with the minimum of fuss.
However, in more recent years and with the rise in importance of the brand, this view has changed. Employers now often urge employees – and sometimes mandate them – to use their positive emotions in interactions with customers and clients to support the brand; the ‘have a nice day’ approach of many American companies.
And in truth, few – if any – jobs are devoid of emotion, and in some cases they positively ooze feeling. The obvious emotional jobs are those from the caring professions such as nursing, medicine, social work and so on, but you might also include the police, fire service, prison service and the army. No police officer asked to investigate a violent crime, or any fireman asked to rescue children from a burning house, is likely to say their job lacks emotion.
Excessive emotion on the job has been shown to be harmful to employees, causing burn-out and depression. As a result, the management of such feelings – either to promote it from service staff or control it in high emotion situations – requires careful consideration from management and an holistic approach.
HR plays a key part in organising roles, processes and systems to reduce the emotional risk for employees and, by implication, the whole organisation.
For example, the NHS has traditionally been organised to depersonalise patients. To protect nurses and doctors from the suffering and even the death of patients, as much as possible is done to distance them. Patient rotas and the allocation of specific tasks for a large number of patients, reduces carers’ familiarity with them. Bed numbers and case numbers rather than names enable nurses to segregate their feelings from what is happening to the individual patient.
By making the NHS more personal, these systems and processes, which have been carefully built up over the years to buffer staff from emotional overload, will be broken down. This means that other systems will need to be put in place to help medical staff cope with the consequences of their increased involvement with patients. As with the organisation of work to reduce risk, the development of systems to support employees will also fall to HR.
From the opposite end of the spectrum, some organisations, rather than repressing employee emotion and feelings, want to encourage it – but only in the ‘right’ ways. In the service professions, management asks employees to show appropriate feelings (friendly, caring, concerned) to develop a relationship between employees and clients and customers. This feeling role (called, if the emotion is forced, emotional labour) is often what promotes the brand and helps to differentiate one organisation from another. But even here, companies should adopt an holistic perspective.
When shop assistants and call centre staff attempt to engage customers, this takes time, and – if the interaction is not going to be seen as forced and false – skill to develop. HR managers should ensure that if management is to mandate client and customer facing behaviour, the appropriate support is put in place and this is lined up with other organisational systems.
For example, teleworkers who have been through a training programme focussing on building rapport with customers will feel cynical and frustrated if only the number of calls is considered in their appraisal.
Managers may see store profits drop if, while staff are trying to build relationships while serving customers, the throughput of customers is reduced because this approach takes more time to deliver. There may be other consequences if the brand experience is considered in a one-dimensional way – customer satisfaction may drop too, as their transactions are taking longer to complete.
The role of emotion
The role of HR then, is to take a 360 degree view of the situation and consider what role emotion is likely to play in the service delivery or customer experience.
If there is potential for negative emotion in the delivery of a service, what can be done to alleviate this? The HR practitioner might wish to consider:
- How work is organised – might teams help to diffuse unhelpful or potentially harmful emotion by giving people chance to share, put things back into perspective, comfort and support? Or might smaller interaction with elements which might cause distress (as in the traditional NHS model) help employees spread the impact of their feelings?
- What systems are in place – academics point to checklists and the ritual of going through them as a way of reducing anxiety and boosting confidence – for example, a soldier checking equipment.
If HR professionals wish to encourage the expression of positive emotion as part of a job, they might need to think about:
- Recruiting the right people – some people are more capable of smiling/being cheerful/coping with rejection than others. Recruiting the right people reduces their risk of suffering from emotional labour.
- The impact of certain types of behaviour – delivering ’emotional’ customer service might take more information, more time, more skills. Which in turn have an impact on what is provided by the organisation in all these areas.
An organisation is an holistic entity and what happens in one place is likely to have an impact on another. Management clearly should be careful what it wishes for.
Karen Drury is a communication partner at fe3 management consultancy.