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The psychological consequences of emotional labour: My research

This is the second part of a blog by serving officer Sarah Jane Lennie. In Part One she told us about herself and how she came to be on a career break studying for a PhD. In this second instalment, she goes on to talk more in depth about her research and what she hopes to identify.

Before starting my PhD. I completed a M.Sc. in Human Resource Management. For this I completed a dissertation, which now forms the pilot study for my doctoral thesis. My dissertation examined emotional labour in the police and how this is linked to burnout.

These are the times we want to scream and shout, or to dissolve into giggles when it just wouldn’t be right. 

Emotional labour is the work we do to disguise how we are really feeling – but for a commercial (or in this case, a policing) reason.

Arlie Hochschild wrote a book called ‘The Managed Heart’ in 1983 and she explored emotional labour and its impact on the individual.

Emotional labour is divided into ‘Surface Acting’ and ‘Deep Acting’: where surface acting sees us act out the required emotion without changing our internal feelings, deep acting is when we try and engage our internal feeling and align them with the required emotion.

What feelings the organisation requires us to experience or display depends upon the ‘feeling rules’ and ‘display rules’ of that culture.

To explain: these are the times we want to scream and shout, or to dissolve into giggles when it just wouldn’t be right. When we take a deep breath when someone else doesn’t manage their emotions towards us, and it smarts – but we don’t complain because that wouldn’t be right/corporate/professional or just polite (we are after all British).

Surface acting 

For a police officer it is what you would expect – not crying when you deliver a death message to parents, not running away in fear when someone more scared than you thrusts a gun/knife/broken bottle at your head.

It’s sitting down to dinner with your loved ones and discussing the latest episode of GoT, when really all you can think about is the kid you just stopped from jumping off the bridge.

Not being rude to the child sex offender you just convicted, but treating everyone with respect, even when they do spit on you…  It really is about keeping your head when the evidence around you suggests you should just run: essentially, not letting the people who depend on you see your fear.

But it is also the place where you stand alone in a crowded and busy locker room at the end of a shift, and everyone in your team (including you) is laughing and joking about the pub fight you just dealt with, where the main protagonists wielded knives and machetes, and really you were scared all along, and suspect they were too.

It’s the hours in the night, long after you should have finished your shift, and you are on your own in a deserted police station, pulling together a handover file for the prisoner you just arrested, who had stated that they wanted to kill you – and did their best to prove it – but now it is the accuracy of paperwork that seems the most pressing matter.  

It’s when you walk into the station shaking, bruised and spattered with someone else’s blood…and being asked to respond to a reported shoplifter. It’s sitting down to dinner with your loved ones and discussing the latest episode of GoT, when really all you can think about is the kid you just stopped from jumping off the bridge. This is surface acting.

Deep acting

Then there is the ‘deep acting’, where officers time and time again empathise with the victims they support… until emotionally, they are exhausted. Burnout.

This discrepancy between felt and displayed emotion is known as emotional dissonance, and it is directly linked to burnout.

Hochschild (1983) defined emotional dissonance as the discrepancy between authentic emotions, and the emotion that is required by organisational feeling and display rules. Emotional dissonance is also described as cognitive dissonance (Hochschild, 1983).

Leon Festinger (1957) first identified cognitive dissonance as a lack of consistency within an individual due to a conflict of beliefs, opinion or knowledge about their self or their environment, and is considered a significant contributor to stress and burnout.  

“Not being able to feel what one should feel may cause the individual to feel false and hypocritical and, in the long run, may lead to the alienation from one’s own emotions, poor self-esteem, and depression” (Zapf, 2002, p245) and, in a sense, is a form of person-role conflict (Kenworthy et al., 2014).

Measuring burnout

For my dissertation I used a Burnout measure created by Maslach and Jackson (1981). In 1979 Maslach and Jackson conducted a study into burned out American police officers and their families.

This study explored how police officers struggled to deal with the emotional consequences of their work; the psychological impact that this had on them, and within the family home.

From this the Maslach and Jackson Burnout Inventory (MBI) was conceptualised. This instrument identifies three separate states of burnout:

  • Emotional Exhaustion (EE): where employees feel emotionally spent
  • Depersonalisation (DP): when employees demonstrate a detached attitude to others
  • Diminished Personal Accomplishment (PA): where employees sense low personal efficacy 

How I did it

Research into emotional labour in policing and the psychological impact is limited; none has been conducted within the United Kingdom. The majority of studies have employed quantitative methods, focusing on different elements of emotional labour and using different measures. Twenty different measures have been employed within five different countries across sixteen studies, spanning twenty-seven years.

I used an audio diary method that allows officers to record their authentic feelings in relation to any chosen incident and to articulate what emotions they expressed, suppressed, and with whom.

Due to this, and a lack of consistency in focus, the diverse spread of research leaves a sense of incompletion: a story half told, where studies do not appear to build on previous findings.

The methods I used for this research are qualitative and focus on capturing the authentic narrative of police officers. I used an audio diary method that allows officers to record their authentic feelings in relation to any chosen incident and to articulate what emotions they expressed, suppressed, and with whom.

This gave officers and privacy and anonymity to truly express themselves as they are not usually permitted within the organisation and society. To support this method I also used a focus group setting to explore themes identified through the audio diaries. It is interesting to note here that one audio diary participant declined to engage with the focus group as they felt unable to honestly express their true emotions with other officers.

Each participant completed Maslach and Jackson’s (1981) Burnout Inventory and I compared the narrative to levels of burnout and drew comparisons.


There is no question that police officers have to manage their emotions in difficult circumstances: that is what the job is and that is what is needed to get it done. Undisputed. 

Sometimes police officers manage their emotions to influence the emotions of others (think angry man, scared child, the frantic parent) but there comes a point where they need to deal with all these emotions and all that they encounter in the routine of their work.

At the moment we don’t just carry out emotion work when we most need to – out on the street holding the thin blue line – but it continues into our culture, back in to what should be the safety of canteens, offices, gyms, locker rooms…

Unlike previous research, which restricted emotional suppression, this methodology resulted in the free expression and identification of eighteen emotions; fear, fright, frustration, shame, compassion, anxiety, depression, anguish, contempt, guilt, anger, disgust, sadness, pity, embarrassment, shame, indignation, and happiness-joy. Additionally officers experienced high levels of distress.

Participants also articulated experiencing multiple and conflicting emotions internally, whilst attempting to display a neutral expression outwardly.

Feeling rules:

The perception is that the public don’t expect officers to display emotions, but this expectation moves beyond members of the public to other professions (nurses etc.), who don’t seem to identify officers as having normal emotional responses to situations.

It is clear that officers see emotional expression as an unofficial form of performance measure, with emotional display considered a sign of weakness – and not being up to the job. There was discussion of a macho culture that demands almost impossible levels of performance from officers, which is enhanced by the constant competition for promotion.

Many participants disclosed how they could not talk about their experiences with family or friends – particularly if they were not police officers, as they felt that they wanted to protect their loved ones. This means that some participants were completely isolated and unable to talk about their distress.


Participants often articulated how they felt that they were viewed as robots; not possessing feelings. This is both a public view, but also a way of officers coping – learning to turn off and depersonalise from their own feelings – becoming robots.  ‘Robot’ is a term offered by participants – not the researcher.

Depersonalisation is described as a learnt behaviour; through observation and experience of senior officers and team culture.

Participants talked about how years of depersonalisation actually result in a hardened attitude towards traumatic events – and in acknowledging their lack of emotional reaction to incidents. Participants also expressed their own distaste as to what they had become, with a sense of guilt, but also saw this as a way of coping, a way of getting through.

Suppressing emotions:

Participants discussed suppressing emotions both with members of the public; but also with colleagues and supervisors.

The main emotions supressed were fear and sadness. The suppression of anxiety was expressed, particularly in relation to the presence of a supervisor at an incident.

The main emotion that was suppressed was fear, and this was out of fear of being perceived as incompetent; and out embarrassment. However, participants were aware that this was not a healthy response, as they were not afforded the opportunity to process their emotions.

Participants expressed a struggle to communicate their fears prior to an incident to supervisors, who would not take their concerns seriously. As a result, participants felt that their safety was compromised as they couldn’t openly discuss their concerns in relation to an incident.

A number of participants expressed significant levels of distress, which were suppressed with colleagues and supervisors. Incidents included attempt suicides, and incidents involving children. Officers who had children (male and female) spoke about how this changed their attitude to police work, both as a threat to personal safety (and the thought of their children having to deal with their death or injury) or relating to incidents involving children, where they found that they became significantly more affected and related to their own children.

Emotional suppression with colleagues:

The rules around emotional suppression continue beyond interactions with members of the public, back into the police station and into relationships with colleagues and supervisors. This is despite, on some occasion, participants being obviously distressed – and not offered any support, or even recognition of their distress, but expected to continue with related paper work in the office.

Participants also spoke about suppressing emotions outside of the organisation, with family and friends. Participants also spoke about how this affected them, the expression of seeing images when trying to sleep and being tearful and unable to sleep.

A lot of distress came from relating incidents to their own lives, whether this be their own children or members of the family that suffer from depression and having to deal with suicide.

Surface acting:

There was some discussion of faking some emotions, but the main talk was of displaying a neutral image – despite internal emotions. Participants talked of distancing and separating emotions from displays.

However, participants did talk of surface acting with colleagues; with faking joviality as a mask. Typical black humour – a form of coping mechanism.  However, some participants stated how they felt uncomfortable with this, as they struggled with their emotions but were expected to join in the team banter – often at an individual’s expense.

There was one emotion that it would appear is very much accepted within organisational relationships – anger. This is seen as a way to release the pressure of supressed emotion, without being seen as weak.  It is anticipated that this alone could have significant implications for the organisation and individuals.

Deep acting:

The acceptance of anger again came through in incidents of deep acting. Anger was deep acted in an attempt to exclude participant’s internal and authentic emotions: fear.

Officers also engaged personal experience to empathise with victims of crime.

Officers are able to compromise their own emotions and values for a short amount of time in order to achieve an objective. This usually involves dealing with suspects, in particular child offenders. This results in participants feeling like they have ‘sold their soul’ when trying to empathise with offenders.


All but one of the participants displayed elements of burnout. This participant regularly stated that they were able to talk to their colleagues and supervisor about their experiences. This supports the belief that emotional expression reduces burnout, even when dealing with traumatic incidents.

Participants who suppressed fear with colleagues generally suffered higher levels of emotional exhaustion. Those participants that deep acted compassion and supressed fear and sadness generally had a lower level of personal achievement. Participants with a high level of personal achievement surface acted professional detachment whilst suppressing sadness, compassion or pity.  However, one suffered high levels of depersonalisation whilst the other did not.

The most interesting finding, although counterintuitive, is that the participants that deep-acted compassion suffered levels of depersonalising burnout. This indicates that it is likely that the type of emotion (negative) that officers are required to deep act is what leads to depersonalisation, as well as officers choosing to depersonalise from incidents and individuals as a coping mechanism.

Moving to doctoral research

My MSc dissertation forms the pilot study for my doctoral research. My PhD is going to build on these findings and use them to direct my research. Firstly, my doctoral research will be at a national level, engaging officers of England and Wales.

I will again be using the audio diary method but combining this with a development of the focus group, moving into role play as a way to further exploring how officers feel the feeling rules of the organisation govern their behaviour in and out of the station.

My research will be longitudinal and will involve an assessment before and after the data collection. This will seek to explore any behaviour change, due to both methods being used also being therapeutic tools which can lead to behaviour and psychological change.

I am also interested in establishing how the media perception and reconstruction of the archetypal police officer (through media, literary fiction and film) influence the public and personal perception of what it is to be an officer, and how we should behave. For this I will review secondary data to establish common themes perpetuated within society through different mediums.

From this I will seek to identify themes within the narrative and action; establishing a commonality of experience that will allow the organisation to truly understand what it is that officers are experiencing – and how the organisation and society prevent them from positively dealing with these experiences.

Sarah is currently looking for participants in her research. If you’re a serving police officer of the rank of inspector or below, and have daily contact with members of the public (by phone or face-to-face), Sarah would love to hear from you at [email protected].

The title of Sarah’s thesis is: Emotional In-authenticity: the psychological consequences of emotional labour for police officers. 

Purpose of the study 

The purpose of this study is to explore whether police officers are able to express the emotions that they experience as a result of their work, or whether they act alternative emotions that are not linked to the ones that they are experiencing. This study seeks to understand whether there are unspoken ‘rules’ around emotional expression.

Overall, this study seeks to address any stigma around emotional distress, and assist officers in emotional processing and daily coping in an operational environment.

What’s required?

You will be asked to record an audio diary twice a week, via an application on your phone. You will be provided with a prompt sheet to guide your thinking when you are creating your diary entry. 

Examples of prompts are:

  • Did you attempt to engage with any emotion or to empathise with the incident or those within it?
  • Did you deliberately choose to display an emotion that was different from the one that you were feeling inside?

Your information will be confidential and anonymous, the only identifying marker I will use will be a participant number. However, your gender, length of service and whether you are a uniformed officer or detective will also be recorded.

The study will take over eight weeks, with two entries made each week. Entries can be as long or as short as you like. You can make more entries if you choose. If you can only participate for a couple of weeks, this is okay, you can stop at any time. Any entries will be very helpful and gratefully accepted.

The recordings will be transcribed and then ‘coded’ by a researcher to find commonality between recordings. This will guide the research. The recordings will be securely stored on an encrypted storage device.

This blog was first published by Oscar Kilo and is republished here with permission.

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