How do emotions factor into the daily lives of workers within caring occupations? This project uses the case of hospice care workers to understand the ways that workers divide emotional tasks, the consequences of experiencing emotions at work, the factors that mitigate negative consequences of emotionally difficult work, and strategies workers use to make work meaningful. Using mixed qualitative (participant observation and semi-structured interviews) and quantitative (closed-ended survey) data collection techniques, this work will rely on, challenge, and help refine the concept of emotional labor, which includes producing or displaying organizationally supported feelings as well as creating the conditions under which others have particular feelings. Ultimately, the project aims to produce a better understanding of the conditions under which emotional experiences at work are detrimental to workers, and the conditions under which they are useful. Additionally, this project will examine the ways that individuals' personal characteristics, occupational positions, and organizational policies structure the amounts and kinds of emotional labor performed, the consequences, and the strategies for dealing with emotional labor. Hospice, an end-of-life care option that emphasizes quality of life and utilizes teams to meet the needs of patients, is an ideal case for this analysis as it is an especially emotional workplace and the structure of hospice organizations requires extensive collaboration with others.

Broader Impact The broader impacts of this research include improving the experiences of hospice and other care workers through explicitly assessing policies and organizational structures that make work difficult or worthwhile. Exjperiences can also be improved as a result of analyzing the ways that different kinds of workers in different kinds of positions deal with emotions and the consequences of emotional labor. By looking at the diverse ways in which emotions factor into the experiences of a diverse set of workers, this project contributes to a larger dialogue about how to make work in any service or helping occupation more rewarding.

Project Report

Hospice workers report higher levels of work satisfaction than other types of medical care providers, even as they provide some of the most emotionally intensive kinds of care. Social scientists typically consider emotionally intensive work to be burdensome to workers, posing a paradox: how can hospice workers remain so satisfied, given the emotional difficulty of their work? What is it about hospice that leads to higher levels of work satisfaction? This project uses a mix of qualitative and quantitative data collection strategies to examine the day-to-day work experiences of hospice care providers, highlighting factors that make work worthwhile, even as it is difficult. It documents intangible job characteristics like work-related identities and relationships, as well as organizational components, like interdisciplinary teams and group decision-making, all of which come together to produce work that is both difficult and highly rewarding. Specifically, hospice workers in this study formed identities around their work, allowing them to see a range of activities as "just part of hospice." Some of those activities, especially using dark humor and detachment toward death, permitted workers to bond with one another and to dissipate tensions involved in providing emotionally intensive work. Relationships with their colleagues were also useful to hospice workers. However, within those relationships, some workers provided more emotional support than others. This unequal division of emotional work led some workers to feel less satisfied than their colleagues because their time with patients was limited by providing support to one another. Finally, hospice workers felt more satisfied, and thus less likely to leave their current job, when their work was stable. Feelings of helplessness and hiding one's own feelings were most strongly associated with hospice workers' desire to leave their job. Taken in conjunction, these findings posit that hospice workers who have quality relationships with their peers, equality in task assignment, and a strong identification with hospice are more likely to be satisfied with their work, while those who feel helpless or unable to be themselves at work are least satisfied. By viewing emotionally intensive work as challenging, but also meaningful, this study offers new explanations of how hospice work differs from more conventional forms of medical work. Most strikingly, this hospice setting differed from conventional medicine in that it sought to encourage relationships among staff and reduce uncertainty in the work. These are not often the goals of more conventional medical work settings. The intellectual merit of the project includes the refinement of the ways that social scientists think about emotions at work, and a better understanding of how paid care providers balance meaningful and difficult aspects of the work. Broader impacts include recommendations for supporting hospice care providers, and hypotheses about how these recommendations may be extended to better support other types of medical workers as well.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Saylor Breckenridge
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University of Arizona
United States
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