By Leslie Ciarula Taylor, Toronto Star, January 13, 2011
Keeping your cool all the time at work can be the quickest route to a burnout, a University of Toronto professor has found.
“Given the emotional nature of the workplace nowadays, where everything now relies on teamwork and interdependence, we need to be aware of this,” said John Trougakos, assistant professor of organizational behaviour at the Rotman School of Management.
His research, done with professors at Purdue and Rice universities, is a first look at the wear and tear on employees who have to stay neutral — from doctors and judges through store clerks and call-centre workers.
Published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the study also examined the debilitating downside of jobs that demand “service with a smile” from employees.
“We looked at what are some of the costs of doing so,” Trougakos told the Star on Thursday. “Regulating our behaviour can be very taxing internally.
“People who do this tend to be burned out. They can’t talk to anyone at work, they avoid social interaction, or go home and have a blow-up with their spouse. The consequences for other facets of their lives (are) serious.”
Everyone has “an internal self-regulatory capacity,” he said. “It’s how we have the discipline to do the work or go to the gym. If you strain that – the psychological resource of being able to regulate our behaviour – it’s very taxing internally. You’ll have a little less to draw on five minutes or an hour down the road.”
In effect, “during breaks, people actually have to take a break.”
There are good reasons for being neutral, Trougakos said. A judge needs to be credible, a therapist needs a client’s trust, a doctor needs to avoid intimidating a patient.
For the worst “neutral” jobs, in polling and at call centres, “people tend to develop scripts for how to deal internally with people who are rude. They’re having a bad day. It’s nothing personal. If you’re not having the emotion initially, you don’t have to regulate it.”
"You're too intense!" were the words of a female supervisor to which I shot back,
"I'm also too bald, so deal with it!"
In another conversation, I recall advising a supervisor that men needed to use their emotions in their professional work, to which he literally screamed back at me,
"You can't do that! It's too dangerous!"
The neurosurgeon who is attending downed Congresswomen, Gabriella Giffords, in Tucson Arizona has just told the world that, while he does not usually pay attention to the emotional potential in healing, there is no doubt that the emotion of her friends and spouse in her room has provoked her to open her eyes, and to raise her arm in response to her husband's urging. Clearly, the release of whatever emotions that were boiling in her assassin is completly unacceptable, especially in the manner in which they were expressed!
Nevertheless, in most situations for most people emotions kept under wraps will eventually flare in ways that will be even more devastating that the original emotions that needed release.
Raising our voice, in intense emotion, while outlining something that seems important, would not be tolerated by many, if not most workplaces. And yet...
Not to express legitimate anger, even privately, can and often does lead us to premature "burn-out"...and the society is not accepting of this reality.
The preservation of an atmosphere of "neutrality" leaves everyone living and working in a bland, sterile and lifeless environment. That may be necessary in a 747 cockpit, in the middle of a tornado, or in the Operating Room in the middle of heart or brain surgery, or in the court room where a judge is presiding over a murder trial, where emotions like grief, and revenge and contempt are raging throughout the room from many sides.
But it is only necessary for a relatively short period of time, and really only sustainable for a short period of time, if we are truly honest with ourselves. I recall the degree of hygiene that was acceptable to my mother in our home was equivalent to the level of hygiene in the O.R. where everything is sanitized. We could be doing the same time to our "unclean" emotions, sanitizing our workplaces from their release, as our way of preserving "safety and decorum".
I recall a grade twelve student telling me, in front of a classroom of his peers, after the class had not received their essays marked for a period that he consider too long, "I think you are just lazy!"
My response grew from a slow burn to such a heated frenzy that I actually removed myself from the room, only to meet two staff members coming to get me, since they had heard my "RANT" from the staffroom.
It was my last year in the classroom, and I do not regret one moment of that eruption of my emotions.
I could tell that I had to make changes in my life, that teaching for me, after twenty-three years, had lost much of its lustre, and that my professional life had to change. The incident happened in May of that school year, and June was the last month I was engaged formally in a classroom teaching assignment, some twenty-six years ago, and I recall the incident as if it happened yesterday.
For decades I restrained my emotions in almost every situation that I considered required such restraint. In the locker-room between halves of a basketball game in which I was coaching, and losing because of what I considered a lack of concentration, I let the players hear about my frustration, in no uncertain terms. Sometimes, my rant worked; and sometimes it did not. I could never tell beforehand.
But this research is more of that kind of wisdom that we proverbially note "that comes from our grandparents"....it is so obvious and yet so "new" to our sanitized culture and our ears.