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  • Laura Huey

Emotional Labour, An Under-researched Aspect of Police Work


This past week I've been doing a deep-dive into missing persons data and I cannot lie: it's depressing as hell. Every single case - regardless of the people involved, the proximate causes, the underlying stressors - involves emotions. The emotions of the people who were reported missing and the emotions of the friends, family, co-workers or others who

reported them missing or otherwise provided information. But, you know what's missing from my research? The feelings, beliefs and experiences of police officers, who spend hour after hour managing emotions, and at some of the absolute worst points in someone else's life. This - emotional labour - is an aspect of policing that is often forgotten when we're focusing on the occupational stressors and traumas associated with the job.


The concept of emotional labour was developed by sociologist Arlie Hochschild (1983), while studying the work of flight attendants and bill collectors - two occupational groups who are expected to keep a constant check on their personal emotions in order to meet customer expectations, and to adhere to their employer's defined norms of what is 'acceptable' emotional expression. For some workers - and I'm thinking particularly of police officers here - managing emotions is an integral part of the job. You have to:


- manage your own emotions (so they conform to what is expected from you in your occupational role)

- deal with the emotions of every victim and/or witness with whom you come into contact

- deal with the emotions of every offender with whom you come into contact.


So, whether as a frontline officer, or someone working in the investigational side of the house, you necessarily spend a lot of your time wearing other people's emotions, while keeping a close check on your own. That's mentally and emotionally exhausting.


A while back when I wrote on this topic, I summarized what the then research had to say about the emotional labour aspects of policing: "The emotive dissonance arising from the conflict between felt and real emotions may have detrimental consequences for officers, including burnout (Wharton, 1993), self-alienation (Mumby & Putnam, 1992), cynicism (Ashforth & Humphrey, 1993), exacerbation of the negative experience (Butler & Gross, 2004), impaired personal relationships (Chapman, 2009) and deterioration of physical health (Barak, 2006)"


We researchers might not have known much when I first started in this area, but we clearly knew emotional labour is taxing and sometimes toxic.


On the upside - at least research-wise - the emergence of a new focus on police wellness is generating more interest in this much neglected aspect of police health. I thought it might be handy to flag a few of the more recent and/or more interesting studies on this topic.


Robocop - The depersonalisation of police officers and their emotions: A diary study of emotional labor and burnout in front line British police officers

Authors: R.Crozier Saraha Anna Sutton


Policing has long been recognized as an emotionally distressing and stressful occupation, and recent years have seen a marked increase in psychological illness within the police service of Britain. Research into the emotional labor of police officers and its psychological consequences is limited and has predominately engaged quantitative methodologies. This paper takes a mixed methods approach, exploring emotional labor and the relationship with burnout within a large police force in the north of England. The use of audio diary provides in-depth exploration of feeling and display rules operating within the police service. Narrative analysis of thirty-eight audio diary entries and a focus group is integrated with results from the Maslach and Jackson Burnout Inventory. Findings indicated de-personalisation as a requirement of feeling and display rules, a strategy also used as a form of coping, as well as experienced as an aspect of burnout. Emotional suppression went beyond interactions with members of the public, continuing into peer and family relationships, with many officers never expressing their true emotions. This presents an important opportunity for the police service of England and Wales to better understand and respond to the emotional pressures and coping mechanisms that officer's experience within their lives.


Austerity Policing, Emotional Labour and the Boundaries of Police Work: An Ethnography of a Police Force Control Room in England

Authors: Karen Lumsden Alex Black


This article discusses the changing role of policing in an era of austerity from the perspective of frontline civilian police staff (call handlers and dispatchers) in a force control room (FCR). It draws on a symbolic interactionist framework and the concept of emotional labour in order to explore the emotional responses and strategies engaged in by staff when responding to 101 non-emergency calls and 999 emergency calls. The clash of public and police expectations, and the emotional labour expended when managing this clash, provide a valuable insight into the frontline staff perspective on the changing role of the police under austerity. Data are drawn from ethnographic fieldwork in the control room of a police force in England.


Emotional Labor, Role Characteristics, and Police Officer Burnout in South Korea: The Mediating Effect of Emotional Dissonance

Hyounggon KwakSusan McNeeleySung-Hwan Kim


This study examines the extent to which emotional labor and role stressors (such as role conflict and ambiguity) required of police officers contribute to police officer burnout. In particular, it is hypothesized that these aspects of police work cause officers to experience emotional dissonance, thereby leading to burnout. To test these hypotheses, we conduct mediation analyses using survey data from 466 police officers in Seoul, South Korea. Overall, emotional labor, role stressors, and emotional dissonance are related to greater police officer burnout. In addition, there were several significant indirect effects between emotional labor, role stressors, and burnout, via emotional dissonance.


Social Stressors and Strain Among Police Officers: It’s Not Just the Bad Guys

Gary AdamsJill Buck


This study examined the relationships of social stressors arising from interactions with civilians and suspects (outsiders) and coworkers and supervisors (insiders) with turnover intention, psychological distress, and emotional exhaustion. It also examined surface acting—a way of faking appropriate emotions—as a mediator of these relationships. Using online survey data collected from 196 police officers, the authors found that social stressors from both sources were related to all three outcomes and that surface acting mediated these relationships. These results extend the literature on emotional labor by demonstrating that models of emotional labor apply to police officers, whose customers differ from those traditionally found in the literature. This study also extends the occupational stress literature by showing that a similar emotional regulation process linking social stressors from customers to strains also holds for social stressors arising from organizational insiders.


The Impact of Emotional Labor and Value Dissonance on Burnout Among Police Officers

Authors: Lonnie M. Schaible, Viktor Gecas


Burnout among police officers is a well-documented phenomenon, with police exhibiting significantly rates significantly higher than other occupations. This is not surprising considering the inherent dangers and challenges police face in the course of their duties. However, police are also subject to a host of institutional and cultural forces that are likely to contribute to burnout. This study examines the variety of ways self-processes, societal and institutional policing values, and demands for emotional presentation on police officers interact to produce burnout. Using data collected from a survey of police officers in the Pacific Northwest (N = 109), we assess three primary hypotheses: (a) The greater the emotional management required of officers, the greater will be their levels of burnout, (b) The greater the dissonance between officer’s own values and those of various reference groups, the greater will be their levels of burnout, and (c) In combination, value dissonance and emotional labor should produce higher levels of burnout than either would independently produce. Results provide mixed support for these hypotheses suggesting that value dissonance only exhibits independent effects on burnout rooted in depersonalization, whereas effects of emotional dissonance vary depending on the type of burnout under consideration. Implications for theory, research, and practice are discussed.




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