Survey sheds light on how emotional labour has taken a toll on various workers throughout pandemic

A photo of a masked woman looking out a window. Her face is not fully visible to the viewer.

Newly released survey data from McMaster University has revealed the unique supports human service workers need in the face of increasing stress caused by the pandemic.

These workers often have encounters with patients or clients that require them to display what is referred to as “emotional labour,” where they must express certain emotions while having to regulate and even supress their own true feelings.

It was clear early in the pandemic that front-line workers like health-care and social service workers would face additional pressures, however, as the pandemic wore on, that pressure seemed to extend beyond this group, says Diana Singh, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Sociology, who led the research.

“Emotional labour has long been an invisible but psychologically impactful requirement in human service work, but the pandemic elevated that requirement to an extent people hadn’t seen or experienced before,” she says.

Research has shown that without proper workplace supports, emotional labour can cause many problems which include burn-out, reduced job satisfaction and overall well-being and becoming detached from feelings.

Working in partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association Hamilton Branch, a partner organization with McMaster’s Community Research Platform and the Initiative for Advanced Research on Mental Health and Society, Singh and her team developed the “Emotions Matter Study” to examine employee well-being and the impact of COVID-19 and get insights on how to better support workers not normally viewed as “frontline.”

“Very early on, it became evident that many frontline staff were experiencing high levels of distress at this unprecedented time,” says Sue Phipps, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association of Hamilton. “We knew we needed to better understand the stressors faced by CMHA staff to augment the existing employee supports so that we may continue to effectively support the mental health of our community.”

Staff at various regional branches of CMHA were surveyed, along with staff at several library systems, including Hamilton Public Library.

More than half of respondents reported severe and moderate stress due to increased social isolation because of COVID-19. They also reported severe and moderate stress about COVID infections among loved ones.

“These two very contrasting occupations show the prevalence of emotional labour and allows us to demonstrate variations in on-the-ground experiences,” says Singh.

“Their interactions with the public may be quite different but the need for training on what emotional labour is and training on the skills that you need to navigate it are universal.”

Singh developed a skill-building workshop to educate people on emotional labour and give them tools to deal with the pressures. That workshop will be available to workers at participating sites through CMHA Hamilton and the Hamilton Public Library starting Spring 2022.

“Hamilton Public Library embarked on this important research with McMaster, CMHA and our partner library systems to determine common issues and gain understanding of library staff’s well-being. We’re using the findings to implement emotional resilience training for all HPL Staff across the organization,” says Paul Takala, CEO and Chief Librarian, Hamilton Public Library.

Singh is also working closely with CMHA Hamilton to develop a peer mentorship program, expected to be piloted in the spring, that will connect staff with peers that have the same lived experience as they do in terms of how they deal with the requirements of their position.

“We know that the pandemic has had a negative effect on the mental health of many Canadians, creating an increased need for support. Through a peer mentorship initiative, we are looking to create a program where front-line workers can connect with each other, using evidence-based approaches for promoting positive mental health,” says Peter Bloemendal, Director of Clinical Services at the Canadian Mental Health Association of Hamilton.

“We know from research that social support is a very important psychological resource that helps protect individuals from developing severe consequences from emotional labour when it is distressing,” said Singh.

“The point of it is really to help build resiliency around emotional labour to help better equip front-line workers for the immediate stressors they face, but also to assist with dampening the long-term impacts these experiences might have on their mental health and overall well-being.”

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