Sometimes work can be emotionally demanding. Salespeople need to express positive emotions to customers even when they feel frustrated. Managers need to motivate staff through tough times. Doctors need to deliver bad news to patients. Over time, demands like these build up and take a toll on burnout and fatigue.
This year at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) conference, I am chairing a symposium on the resources and capabilities that employees can draw on to maintain their wellbeing and performance in emotionally demanding jobs. It’s a collaborative effort, involving 16 researchers from eight institutions across five countries. In the paragraphs below I’ve summarized some key takeaways; however, I encourage you to check out the full session for all the details.
Strong teams and supportive supervisors.
Two papers focused on the support that employees can get from the people they work with – their supervisors and their teammates.
Jochen Menges, Lauren Howe, Sarah Kern and Leander de Schutter present a study in which they asked textile workers to keep a work diary for 10 days. The workers recorded the interactions they had with their supervisors, the setbacks and challenges they faced, and the emotions they felt in response. The team then paired the diary data with daily performance data. They found that small, seemingly unimportant interactions between supervisors and employees, such as laughing together and greeting each other, were actually quite impactful. Employees who experienced a lot of these interactions on the day before a negative work event felt less frustration, anger, and disappointment in response to that event. They were also able to maintain performance levels better than employees who had experienced fewer positive supervisory interactions. As Jochen and his team explain, the positive emotional capital or goodwill built up between supervisor and employee protects the employee from the negative effects of frustrations and setbacks at work.
In a similar vein, Melinda Garcia, Serena Wee and I examined co-worker support within teams of salespeople. We assessed the level of support salespeople could draw on by asking them how often their co-workers listened to them and helped them when they had problems. Salespeople who could rely on co-worker support were more likely to ensure that their customers’ needs were met.
The message for business leaders is that interventions to enhance wellbeing and performance should focus on the immediate team and supervisory context in which the employee works. Especially in more isolated remote working environments, ensuing that daily exchanges of support, goodwill and assistance remain available is very important.
The role of Emotional Intelligence.
Three papers in the symposium examined the impact of emotional intelligence. EI is a personal resource that employees can draw on to help them cope with emotionally demanding jobs. We think of it as the ability to perceive, understand and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. For example, people with high levels of EI will be better at recognizing and responding to others’ emotional states.
Melinda Garcia, Serena Wee and I looked at the way high and low EI salespeople interacted with their customers. We measured the EI of the salespeople using a 15-minute mini-game called Emotify. In this game, the salespeople had to identify the face that best matched the emotions experienced by a person in a brief scenario. You can see an example question below. Our study showed that high EI salespeople were more attentive to the needs, emotions and satisfaction of their customers compared to low EI salespeople. It’s easy to see why this might be the case. Understanding the emotions of others is itself an emotionally demanding task. Consultants with lower levels of EI are less likely to engage in this behavior and less likely to be successful when they attempt it.
Amy Bannatyne, Craig Gilles, Kirsty Forrest, Cindy Jones, Carmel Tepper and Jo Bishop explored the role of EI in medical school. We know that medicine is an emotionally demanding job, and that quality of care depends on the ability of doctors to communicate empathetically with patients. Amy and her colleagues found that medical students with higher levels of EI, as measured when they applied for the course, performed better when evaluated on their ability to communicate with patients during the course. These results held up even when taking into account the academic performance and personality of the medical students, highlighting the unique benefit that EI provides.
In the final study on EI, Jigyashu Shukla and Dana Joseph explore the burden that those with high EI can bear. They found that people who were very good at perceiving emotions in themselves and others tended to have lower levels of job satisfaction when compared to their less perceptive colleagues. Perhaps this should not be surprising. We know that negative emotions are more impactful than positive emotions. A person who is sensitive to emotional information will see some positive emotions and some negative emotions, but it’s the negative emotions that will have the most impact. The outsized impact of negative emotions might lead to lower levels of job satisfaction overall. We can draw an analogy here with IQ or general intelligence. A highly intelligent employee may be more likely to see and appreciate the shortcomings of their own organization’s products or services, and this could impact negatively on job satisfaction. Less intelligent and less perceptive co-workers, by comparison, remain blissfully ignorant.
Our discussant, Neal Ashkanasy, does a great job of summarizing these studies and highlighting the contributions they make. Overall, they emphasize the importance of the emotional landscape that employees work in. Going to work every day is not simply a physical or a cognitive task – it’s an emotional task. To perform well in these environments, employees need resources such as EI, coworker support and supervisor support. Organizations need to recognize the emotional effort that goes into work each day and ensure that their employees have what they need to thrive and survive.