Emotion Work and Health Care

I love my job. I love working with older adults and with younger folks who have long-term care needs. I know that the meaningful moments I can help to facilitate through music are healing and powerful, and I love making music with all of the people I meet every day.

Working with people who have such special needs is not always easy, though. This is true whether you are a family caregiver, a therapist, or another professional caregiver like a CNA or nurse. Our responsibility is to be focused on the other person’s needs, including their emotional needs, and sometimes what we are feeling in the moment does not match what the care recipient needs at that time. In those moments, we have to show an emotion that we don’t necessarily feel.

Researchers* in occupational health have examined this practice of demonstrating an emotion that one doesn’t really feel to fulfill an occupational role. They call it “emotion work” or “emotional labor,” and it applies to people in many diverse jobs, from call center employees to police officers. Here are some examples from health care (fictional, but true to life):

  • Bill is a pediatric nurse, and he knows that the next procedure he has to assist with will cause pain to his young patient. He is feeling anxious about the procedure, and scared on the young patient’s behalf. Nevertheless, he puts on a smile and tells jokes as he wheels the child to the procedure room.
  • Helen is a licensed counselor. She is on cloud nine today – her husband just got a promotion, her daughter just won the fourth grade spelling bee, and her black lab finally learned how to use the doggie door. Her next client, though, is going through a messy divorce and may lose custody of his children. She has to put herself in his shoes and be compassionate and empathic.
  • Manny is a CNA at a local nursing home. One of the residents has been incontinent and needs help cleaning up, but the resident yells at him and pushes him away. Manny has to be calm and friendly to help the resident, but he is actually feeling frustrated, tired, and a bit grossed out.
  • Rachelle is a music therapist in a special care unit for people with dementia. She just found out that one of the group members died unexpectedly last weekend. She’s feeling some grief over this loss, but her group members are ready for an upbeat holiday-themed session. They would not benefit from processing the resident’s death, and in fact, bringing it up would probably cause more harm than good. Rachelle has to project holiday cheer, even when she is feeling sad and tired.

(Okay, that last one really is true.)

Being in a job or role that involves emotion work makes you more prone to burnout. There are loads of ways to deal with job stressors and burnout, too many to cover in this post. For some ideas, you can check out the “self-care” tag on this blog. Working through these issues with colleagues or trusted friends is also vital. 

For me, though, it helps just a little to know that there is actually a term, established by research, for what I am feeling on those tough days, and that I am not the only one who feels it. In our work as caregivers, emotional labor is just part of the job.

Does “emotion work” describe the job you do? When have you experienced the need to portray a different emotion to fulfill your role as a caregiver? What does it feel like to have to switch emotional gears? Please, please, please share below.

* I have too many specific references to list here. If you want more info on the research, please let me know, and I’ll send you some citations.
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