Issue Briefs

Following is the section of a recent MSPB white paper on counteracting the burnout that comes from what it called “emotionally laborious work” (what it called ELW) that is characteristic of many federal jobs.

Most agencies took the view that work tasks, in general, were assessed for performance and recognition with no particular identification of the extra efforts that ELW might require. However, some agencies did recognize that emotional labor was a component of such work to be considered when discussing performance with employees and when rewarding good performance by an employee.

Performance Feedback

As we discussed in our recent research brief, The Roles of Feedback, Autonomy, and Meaningfulness in Employee Performance Behaviors, by choosing which things to discuss, management is—in effect—sending a message about which things matter. Specifically recognizing the ELW component of the work, and expressing appreciation for an employee managing emotions well, may help reinforce the message that handling the emotions of others, and one’s own emotions, is important.

Discussing poor performance of ELW or Feelings Pretense may be particularly sensitive. Employees tend not to enjoy being told they have done something poorly, and criticizing an employee’s emotional reaction to the work is likely to elicit a new (and unpleasant) emotional reaction from that employee. As we discussed in our research brief, Performance Management is More than an Appraisal, the past should be seen as an opportunity to offer lessons learned, but the emphasis should be on how to take advantage of that information to grow. This is particularly true for ELW and Feelings Pretense.

Rotational Assignments

Several agencies include the possibility of offering rotational assignments as part of the performance management of the ELW workforce. One agency noted:

When previously successful employees begin to exhibit poor performance of their normal duties, a manager’s first course of action is to check-in with the employee to determine what might be affecting them or how their personal situation may have changed. In positions of higher stress, if a manager determines that the exposure to the environment is the source of the performance issues, a temporary or permanent reassignment of duties would be discussed to see if the situation could be mitigated.

For the sake of morale and mutual respect, it may be important to express to such employees that the decision to rotate out of this work is not a “failure” by the individual employees, but rather that their sacrifices to perform such work are deeply appreciated and that they have sacrificed enough.

For some positions, catching such burnout early may make it possible for the person to return to the ELW later, once the employee has recovered. For others, a return may not be practical, but the employees’ skills and experiences can be valuable in future assignments. The important thing is to intercede before it is too late. As we have previously reported, our data shows that once an employee becomes too exhausted, it is very difficult for the supervisor to influence that employee’s desire to remain on the job.

Keeping an employee in ELW too long may create a lower return on investment than there would have been in encouraging the employee to rotate sooner. An employee who can avoid burnout may be productive in other duties and possibly be able to later return to the particularly stressful work, whereas one who is too exhausted may be lost entirely.

In some agencies, where ELW is especially common or inherent in an entire occupation, routine rotational assignments for everyone involved in ELW may not be practical. However, the higher the level of ELW in a position, or the greater the need for Feelings Pretense, the larger the potential becomes that some rotational opportunities may be necessary.

Training for Performing and Supervising Emotionally Laborious Work

Several agencies indicated that they offered training for employees on how to handle emotional work. Training for customer service positions tended to focus on dealing with others, while training for many law enforcement positions focused on how an employee could cope with his or her own emotional reaction.

Managing the Emotions of Others

One customer service agency has a series of courses for entry-level positions, tailored to the nature of the interactions. For example, employees who interact with the public face-to-face are given a course that “provides employees with tips on how to communicate with the public efficiently and professionally. It includes lessons on how to effectively assist claimants who have special needs as well as how to effectively manage difficult interview[s].” Those who interact with the public by telephone receive training unique to that form of communication. “At the end of each module, trainees are tested on the training material, including the role-play of a mock call with a customer. Following the completion of these activities, trainees participate in on-the-job training before processing to the next module.”

This agency may have been able to allocate the resources to develop and implement such specialized training because customer service is so central to the mission. But there are also classes of jobs that exist across many agencies that require managing the emotions of others, such as human resources or contracting officers’ technical representatives (COTRs).16 When an agency is too small or has too few resources to commission high-quality, professionally-developed, situationally-appropriate training, it may be beneficial to obtain such training from another agency that faces similar ELW challenges.

Managing One’s Own Emotions

Most of the training for handling one’s own emotions tended to focus on coping with the effects of having performed ELW rather than on emotionally preparing to perform ELW. However, if the damage can be avoided, or its impact reduced, that can be even more beneficial.

Training in advance may be particularly appropriate for positions in which trauma from the ELW is especially likely. One agency has employees who are required to work with materials involving the abuse of children, including explicit materials. The training for these employees “includes orientation and pre-exposure training for employees who will be exposed to graphic material.”

A different law enforcement organization has a program for employees in positions that have been identified as having particularly strong emotional labor requirements. The program “provides three-days of didactic and experiential learning which offer coping skills to mitigate or effectively deal with the potential for emotional labor.”

Another agency has a one-week orientation program that includes topics such as employee suicide and employee trauma. This agency was also pilot testing a program called “Mindfulness” which is intended “to enhance resilience and performance for individuals working in very stressful environments.”

Managing Subordinates’ Engaged in Emotionally Laborious Work

We asked agencies to “describe any specific training your agency provides to supervisors of employees who perform emotional labor.” Most agencies—even those who recognized the importance of assessing and training employees engaged in ELW—did not have any such training. One notable exception was a law enforcement organization whose employees deal with child exploitation cases. Their program for such employees includes not only training for the employees, but also requires supervisors of employees in these assignments to participate in training that provides orientation to what employees will deal with and information about mitigation services.

When a supervisor is expected to manage subordinates engaged in ELW, it may be wise to train that supervisor on unique responsibilities associated with supervising such employees. These include, but are not limited to: (1) how to communicate ELW expectations in a manner that shows an understanding of the difficulties of ELW; (2) warning signs to look for that ELW is causing more stress for an employee than that person may be able to handle; and (3) what supervisors can do to help an employee facing such stress (e.g., what counseling services are available or how to obtain a rotational assignment to allow for a recovery period).

Resources for Coping with Stress Caused by Emotionally Laborious Work

As discussed above, some agencies used training to provide preparatory or preventative tools to cope with ELW-related stress. But most of the agencies described coping resources that approached the situation after an employee was already feeling the effects.

By far, the most common coping resource mentioned by agencies was the availability of the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). In many agencies, EAP is designed to help with a wide range of stressors, some of which are not directly related to work duties, such as financial matters, health problems, or personal relationships. However, law enforcement organizations tended to have additional resources available to employees. Several offer a Peer Support Program and at least one had a Chaplaincy Support Program.

At least two organizations have (or are designing) programs to address the effect of ELW on an employee’s family. One agency mentioned that they provide an “an orientation for the families of the [employees] that introduces them to the roles and responsibilities of the [employees], the importance of health and lifestyle, the availability of the Employee Assistance Program (EAP)… and firearms safety in the house.” An agency in a different cabinet department told us that they are also planning to introduce a ‘Spouse and Family Orientation’ program.

One thing these resources have in common is the concept of providing external support to the employee. Whether the support comes from a chaplain, a peer, a counselor, or a family member, the employee should not feel that he or she is bearing the burden alone.