Dr Jake Phillips from Sheffield Hallam University writes about his research using the concept of “emotional labour” to explore the link between what it means to be a professional in probation and the inherently emotional nature of the work.
The concept of emotional labour – the way people manage their emotions to “get the job done” – enables us to look at how practitioners use emotional displays to elicit an emotional response in the person they are working with. Participants in our study talked to us about how they display for example, empathy, humour, anger and satisfaction to connect with clients, motivate them to initiate change, and convey approval or disapproval about their actions. They also highlighted several effects of this work on their emotional well-being, their private lives and the effect on individual’s mental health.
Participants told us that being “professional” involved a degree of emotional suppression. For example, it is unprofessional to display unbridled joy at a client’s success as this would be transgressing a professional boundary. Similarly, outright anger at a client who has reoffended would be seen as counter-productive and damaging to the officer-client professional relationship.
Having empathy, a key probation professional value, with someone convicted of very serious offences can be difficult, especially, as highlighted by some of the parents in our sample, if the offence was against children. All of these examples involve what emotional labour theorists call ‘surface acting’ which is where a practitioner simulates emotions in order to achieve the aims of the organisation. There is strong evidence that the more surface acting a job demands, the greater the risk of burnout there is amongst workers.
There are a range of strategies that can be put in place to protect workers from the demands placed upon them by emotional labour. Some of these strategies involve supporting practitioners with the surface acting that is inherent to their work whilst others are about enabling staff to do ‘deep acting’ which is where there is closer alignment between inner feelings and emotional displays. Deep acting poses a lower risk of burnout than surface acting and stems from more experience and better training.
Research suggests that when the emotional demands of the job are made explicit the risk of burnout decreases. Employers should allow workers to probe their own emotional displays through clinical supervision or a mentoring scheme. Another useful strategy would be to provide workers with the opportunity to develop a self-care plan which focuses on emotional well-being. Peer support can provide practitioners with the opportunity to ‘vent’ and ‘let off steam’. Such ‘communities of coping’ tend to exist organically, but employers should acknowledge their value in enhancing staff wellbeing and provide workspaces which facilitate them.
All this means that professionalism and emotion work in probation are inextricably linked. Yet, it also means that professional practice brings with it a high risk of burnout. Thus employers need to recognise this aspect of probation work and implement strategies to ameliorate some of these effects. To do otherwise would be to ignore what counts as being ‘a professional’ in the field of probation.