Emotional labor and the public sector

We’ve written lately about the emotional side of some of the toughest jobs in government. Police officers, firefighters, emergency workers and corrections employees must find a way to deal with the ongoing stress – and inevitable tragedy — that is an integral part of their work life.

University of Colorado Prof. Mary Guy

Mary Guy, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Public Affairs has been studying the impact of “emotional labor” for many years. She wrote to us following our July 7th Governing column to ask us to focus more on the topic. “It deserves attention, not only from the negative side, but also from its positive side. Many public service jobs are emotionally intense — much more so than private sector jobs. People usually come to government for services on the worst day of the worst week of the worst month of their lives.”


We called Prof. Guy to hear more. Over the years, she’s had dozens of conversations with government workers in emotionally intense jobs. The workers she has interviewed include dispatchers, people who are handling call lines, social workers, teachers, mental health workers, domestic violence workers and countless other individuals whose jobs entail as much of an emotional component as a cognitive one.


Many of these jobs require people to cover up their own emotions, to wear a mask of sorts, in order to handle the situations they confront. “It’s the public information officer who has to give factual information while standing in front of a scene of devastation,” she says. “It’s a 911 call taker who has to deal with a hysterical child on the phone or has to control her own emotions when she hears someone screaming.”


The qualities that help individuals successfully handle emotional labor “are never listed in any job description,” says Guy. “They don’t get rewarded in the annual performance appraisal.”


One of the most important qualities is “emotive self awareness,” she says. One manager she spoke with in a victim’s assistance agency, for example, will always ask a job candidate how he or she has handled anger or emotional upset at a previous job. If someone denies ever feeling angry or emotionally affected, they don’t get the job. “Workers who are more aware of their own emotive state have less burnout than people who are not aware,” says Guy. “Developing awareness of how one feels and being able to articulate that and talk about that, significantly diminishes the degree to which burnout is going to happen.”


An important part of handling emotional labor is talking about it – for example, in weekly sessions in which workers can share their experiences with peers who understand. This kind of emotional safety valve is more common in women-dominated settings, such as a domestic violence shelter. “Police try to do this, but it isn’t integrated as a norm. It’s treated as someone having a problem and it has to be treated as normal.”


Guy emphasizes that jobs with a high emotional labor component also can be the most rewarding. “It has a downside, but it also has a tremendous upside in contributing to job satisfaction. They know their work matters. They know they’re making a difference.”

If you’d like to read more about emotional labor in the public sector, Prof. Guy has co-authored two books on the topic as well as numerous journal articles. The books are:


Emotional Labor and Crisis Response: Working on the Razor’s Edge by Sharon H. Mastracci, Mary E. Guy & Meredith A. Newman, 2011


Emotional Labor: Putting the Service in Public Service by Mary E. Guy, Meredith A. Newman & Sharon H. Mastracci, 2008

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