Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Switching, empathising and staying neutral: the emotional labour of GP receptionists

When you sit in a doctor’s waiting room, your mind, like mine, may wander toward the reception desk, with its trilling phones and flow of patients. But our idle observations pale in comparison to those of Jenna Ward and Robert McMurray, who spent over 300 hours observing GP receptionists within three practices. They´ve published their findings in a new study in the journal Social Science and Medicine, which raises the lid on the emotional labour conducted in this role.

The process of managing your emotions to achieve paid work outcomes was termed emotional labour by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in her seminal The Managed Heart. First explored within the ever-cheery flight attendant role, it’s now been explored in a range of jobs including health professionals such as nurses. Given the increasingly crucial role of the GP receptionist as the gatekeeper of health services, it’s clearly worthwhile to understand what kind of emotional labour they are involved with.

The investigators noted that the receptionists have to balance their transactional activities, such as checking-in or filing, with the need to deal with the unique features of a patient. For instance, they observed receptionists pausing to relate to and warmly converse with a patient with mental disabilities regarding the children´s book they had brought in. Through interviews taken opportunistically across the study the investigators clarified that these emotional moments are to some extent a performance, not an effortless reaction: ”you can't keep up a level of empathy that maybe you would like to do all of the time because it would be emotionally draining". This is emotional labour in action.

The research uncovered two forms of emotional labour that have previously been undefined. The first was neutrality: under pressure or faced with abuse, receptionists must present themselves as calm, professional, and willing to allow access to services in a disinterested manner. The other, emotional switching, is a consequence of the constant flow of situations the receptionist must deal with: when a joyful phone call is followed by a anxious or sorrowful encounter, the receptionist´s emotions must keep step.

The authors conclude that the research offers insight into the role, and also asks questions about the nature of emotional labour more broadly. In their words, "it is not just the emotional style of offering that is part of the service provided by GP receptionists, but also the ability to tailor that offering to the needs of individual clients." They suggest that this may be a feature of many more roles that demand emotional labour, and call for more research to investigate how our working lives require us to be the keeper of our feelings.

ResearchBlogging.orgWard, J., & McMurray, R. (2011). The unspoken work of general practitioner receptionists: A re-examination of emotion management in primary care Social Science & Medicine, 72 (10), 1583-1587 DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.03.019