Monday, 13 May 2013

Who pays the biggest price for managing emotional displays in the workplace?

Understanding workplace demands on our emotions is one of our popular topics. Recent research combines two issues we've reported on previously: surface acting, the form of emotional labour that involves expressing emotions you don't genuinely feel, and affect spin, a measure of the variability of a person's emotional experiences. The paper suggests that overall, surface acting places greater demands on people high in affect spin.

Daniel Beal and colleagues ran their study with 64 restaurant servers from seven US restaurants. At regular stages in a shift, participants used PDA devices to record states and behaviours they had experienced since the last collection stage. This included how much surface acting they had performed, stress and fatigue measures, and ratings of various emotional states (eg happiness, guilt). The latter was used to compute affect spin by determining each individual's 'emotional centre' and then establishing how much they varied from this centre across the study. Participation was for an average of 10 shifts, with four collections per shift (shift start, pre-rush, post rush, shift end).

The ultimate study outcome measure was fatigue, and the data confirmed the researchers' prediction that surface acting would affect this in two ways. Directly - effortful strategies use up psychological resources - and indirectly through heightened stress, as a consequence of body physiology being forced away from natural expressions. The researchers suspected that affect spin would further influence this story and put this to the test using a multi-level model of how acting, stress and fatigue interact, both for individuals with low-affect spin - meaning their emotions are relatively consistent and non-dynamic - and for those with high-spin.

High spin participants saw surface acting increase their fatigue to a greater extent than their low spin co-workers. We know that high emotional variability makes it difficult to anticipate what emotions will emerge; this may make it harder to wrangle these sudden states into shape - especially if the emotion to be masked is extreme.

Similarly, whereas low spin individuals find surface acting slightly stressful, those with high spin seem to be more affected. Beale's team predicted this, as high spin individuals are generally more reactive to emotionally resonant situations, exactly the situations where surface acting tends to be needed.

But there is a silver lining for high spin: although they feel more stress, they can shrug it off more easily. It's plausible that their nature leads them to experience more daily drama, and they have learned to cope with it as a part of life. weakening somewhat the path from stress to fatigue. Still, overall the high spin individuals ended up more fatigued from surface acting than their counterparts.

As emotional labour is part of so many jobs nowadays, in the burgeoning service industry and beyond, it's important to understand what the consequences are for employee wellbeing. Stress and fatigue are predictors of burnout and job turnover, so understanding risk factors for different kinds of people gets us a step closer to supporting them and helping the workplace to contain natural smiles, as well as forced ones.
ResearchBlogging.orgBeal, D., Trougakos, J., Weiss, H., & Dalal, R. (2013). Affect Spin and the Emotion Regulation Process at Work. Journal of Applied Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0032559


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