Issue Briefs

MSPB: Emotional fatigue appears to reflect the degree to which employees must pretend to have emotions that they do not really feel or disguise their true feelings

Following is an article from a recent MSPB publication describing results of its research into emotional exhaustion by federal employees.

If all the world’s a stage and we are but actors, then the masks we wear in the performance of our job roles can either be a good fit or a poor fit to our true selves. In the job context, poor-fitting masks are worn by employees who must perform their jobs while presenting themselves in ways that are inconsistent with how they really feel. We found that this inconsistency has important implications for employees at work.

As noted in a Winter 2015 Issues of Merit article, many Federal jobs involve emotional labor—that is, working with and providing comfort to people with sensitive emotional issues, and managing one’s own emotions and those of others. These jobs include those in the fields of medical care, disaster relief, emergency response, social programs, and law enforcement. Doing this too much and for too long may cause some employees to experience emotional fatigue, which we define as the extent to which employees report worrying that their job is hardening them emotionally and feeling tired, run down, and “used up” at the end of the workday due to emotional stressors.

However, preliminary findings from the 2016 MPS suggest that it is not so much the emotional labor involved in the job that causes emotional fatigue. Rather, data show that the main reason for emotional fatigue appears to be the degree to which employees must pretend to have emotions that they do not really feel or who believe that they have to hide their true feelings to do their work. In such jobs, employees may need to portray empathy, caring, and interest even when they do not genuinely experience these emotions. Other jobs may require that employees enforce rules or apply policies which they may not fully agree with. Still other jobs may involve promoting the organization’s ideals, values, or perhaps even mission which may at times be at odds with the employee’s own attitudes and beliefs. Using the analogy of an actor’s mask, we could say that such an employee is wearing a poorly fit mask and it is this masking that is the source of the stress rather than the emotionally charged work itself.

Our research suggests that masking—or feigning unfelt emotions—on the job increases emotional fatigue and intent to quit while decreasing discretionary effort and job performance. On the other hand, employees who report engaging in emotional labor, absent this masking component, report reduced intention to quit and much more discretionary effort leading to increased job performance. It appears that people in emotionally challenging jobs are often well fit due to self-selection into those jobs and thus thrive, while employees required to mask, in turn, suffer.

The results of the MPS 2016 suggest new reasons to focus on ensuring a good fit between employees and jobs where truly felt emotions are consistent with the behaviors required of the job. It also argues against the notion that emotional labor is necessarily a bad thing and should always be reduced.