Stress warning over hiding feelings at work

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Suppressing emotions and being nice to customers and colleagues at work can take a lot out of you, according to psychologists.

All organisations expect employees to "manage their emotions", be they office workers stifling anger towards fellow employees or undertakers exhibi-ting due solemnity at funerals.

Some employers such as Macdonald's and Disney have written codes of conduct which mean staff have to spend most of their time smiling and being inordinately accommodating to the most difficult customers.

Other companies have a less formal set of unspoken rules, but nevertheless employees are expected to keep their boredom, anxiety and disappointment to themselves. The basic rule is that "extremes of emotion" should not be exhibited.

"Don't show anger and don't swing from the chandeliers with delight," says Sandi Mann, a research psychologist at the University of Salford.

All this can be very stressful and lead to absenteeism and high staff turnover, but people should keep "faking it", said Ms Mann.

Addressing the occupational psychology conference of the British Psychological Society in Blackpool yesterday, she said the need for employees to keep emotions to themselves was not necessarily damaging.

It provided considerable benefits to most organisations. "It is a very important social skill and can enhance the corporate identity of the business. What is new is that we are finding it has a downside and can lead to stress. Unhealthy employees can mean an unhealthy organisation. We should keep on faking it, but we should look at ways of managing the stress that it creates."

Nurses often had to display appropriate emotions. "They sometimes have a laugh with colleagues at a patient's expense, not to be cruel but to relieve stress," she said.

Such "emotion management" was seen in everyday life. "When you are on the bus, don't laugh out loud because people will think you are strange," Ms Mann said.

Her findings were based on a study of 160 people at 12 companies in Britain, from banks and building societies to a television group. Ms Mann, who conducted her research with Robert Jones of Southwest Missouri State University, found that too much suppression could result in a failure to report an organisation's shortcomings to senior management.

Where companies expected employees to exhibit a stiff upper lip, expression of personal feelings could be seen as a sign of weakness and add to stress.

The researchers urged management to recognise the problem and maximise the benefits of emotion management while minimising psychological costs. Companies should allow workers "downtime" when they are allowed to express their feelings.

t Sometimes a "good heavy bollocking" of an employee was much more effective than a formal disciplinary procedure, a psychologist believes. However, such an informal reprimand could only work where the person giving the telling-off has the respect of the worker.

Derek Rollinson of the University of Huddersfield, said: "A bollocking does work in a number of cases, but we can all find cases where they don't. They can lead to resentment."

Dr Rollinson said there were also considerable imperfections in formal procedures. In a study of 104 employees who had gone through a disciplinary process, he said 24 per cent had changed their behaviour gladly, while a further 24 per cent would co-operate grudgingly. The rest said they would probably commit the same offence again.

He urged management to use disciplinary procedures to "persuade" and "rehabilitate" employees rather than exact retri- bution. Many employees believed that disciplinary hearings - which often took on a quasi-legal atmosphere - had been prejudged. They also believed that rules and regulations were applied inequitably. Sometimes, they said, rules were not taken seriously by management, but existed to "show who is boss".