Recognizing the Emotion Work of Public Service

Source: Meredit Newman, Mary Guy, and Sharon Mastracci, Public Management, Vol. 89 no. 6, July 2007
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Police officer, social service counselor, 911 call taker, caseworker, prison guard, receptionist, public health nurse, counter clerk, and public schoolteacher: What do all these public service jobs have in common? They all require that a relationship be developed between the service provider and citizen. This requires artful affect and is called emotional labor. Our research into the work experiences of local government workers makes it clear that emotion work is at the heart of service transactions and can be described as “real work.” Many, if not most, public service jobs require interpersonal contact that is either face to face or voice to voice. Those who staff the counter at the tax collector’s office are expected to greet the 100th citizen of the day with the same sincerity as they greeted the first. Those who staff the phone lines for the manager’s office are expected to be “nicer than nice.” Caseworkers must care about strangers, and inspectors who work for planning and zoning departments are required to treat each aggravated homeowner with fairness and courtesy. In the aftermath of a hurricane, first responders must address not only physical disaster but emotionally traumatized citizens. Police officers and prison guards will tell you that they engage in emotion work every day, but at the other extreme. Rather than being nurturing and gentle, their jobs require them to wear a “game face,” to act tougher than they actually feel, and to engage in verbal judo with lawbreakers. This work is relational in nature and is called emotional labor. Such work “greases the wheels” so that people cooperate, stay on task, and work well together. It is essential for job completion. In fact, such skills are prerequisites for quality public service.

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