Faking your feelings at work, especially if your boss pressures you to do it, is an important factor in burnout, according to new research...
PHILADELPHIA — Faking your feelings at work, especially if your boss pressures you to do it, is an important factor in burnout, according to new research from the University of Pennsylvania.
Call-center employees were more likely to feel “emotionally exhausted” — a major component of burnout — if their supervisors stressed strict rules of telephone behavior, such as expecting workers to be nice no matter how rude the caller.
While good phone manners are clearly important, companies can pay a high price for requiring perfection.
Emotional exhaustion is “very, very strongly related” to turnover, absenteeism, performance problems and loafing, said Steffanie Wilk, one of the authors of the study, which was published recently in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
“There’s nothing worse than having service people who are just burned out on the job,” she said.
Wilk did the research at an undisclosed, large telecommunications company while an assistant professor in the Wharton School’s management department. She is now at Ohio State University. Wilk and Lisa Moynihan of the London Business School surveyed 940 supervisors and 1,236 workers in a variety of different call centers within the telecom company.
Wilk has a long-standing interest in emotional labor — the effort it takes to manage feelings on the job — and in call-center employees.
Not only are these workers expected to calm down cantankerous callers, which often involves suppressing negative feelings, but they also are supposed to end calls on a happy note, maybe even with a sale. That often requires faking positive feelings.
“A lot of these workers are given mirrors, and they’re told to smile while they’re on the phone,” Wilk said, “because their voices will sound happier.”
What she and Moynihan noticed was that these workers, who faced similar work demands, had varied emotional reactions.
“What really struck us were these pockets of happy and pockets of very sad,” Wilk said.
Based on talks with employees, she suspected that intrusive supervision was worsening the stress inherent in the job.
Workers who were happiest had bosses who gave them some leeway: “You don’t have to take it,” they’d say. “If someone’s really cussing you out, I’m not going to come down on you if you just cut them off.”
In the survey, employees whose supervisors placed the highest priority on good interpersonal skills felt the most emotionally exhausted. It did not matter how much bosses looked over their shoulders. Wilk thinks the key factor was the degree of nitpicking and emphasis on doing “everything by the book.”
Employees who saw service work as a career were least affected by supervision, Wilk said, probably because they did not have to fake being nice as often as those not “born to serve.”
Wilk said she saw this study as a cautionary note at a time when customers were getting ruder and business schools were focusing on “high-performance workplaces.”
On the positive side, she said, she is hearing of more companies that are saying: “You don’t have to take it. … Our people are important to us.”