A job that requires constant contact with demanding clients can be emotionally exhausting. But supervisors affect whether the job is ultimately rewarding or a complete drain, reports an article in the September 2005 issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology. The authors show that managers who push frontline workers to “put on a happy face” tend to burn out their employees.

“It’s not being required to know products well or even being monitored that gets to people,” explains study co-author Steffanie Wilk, “but rather being pressed to detach from what’s going on and adhere to certain ‘display rules’ – narrow requirements governing the kinds of emotions they can show on the job.” Wilk, an expert in human relations at Ohio State University, co-authored the study with Lisa M. Moynihan, an organizational behavior specialist at the London Business School. While previous studies established that interpersonally demanding jobs lead to burnout, Wilk and Moynihan are among the first to explore how supervisors can improve or worsen employees’ experience.

In the authors’ survey study, more than 1,000 call center workers in a large telecommunications company reported how frustrated they are with their jobs. Then the workers’ supervisors expressed how much importance they place on workers’ product knowledge, technical competence, and interpersonal skills. Workers whose supervisors strongly emphasized interpersonal skills – requiring that employees remain calm and cheerful with even the most irate callers – had elevated burnout scores.

Paul Ekman, author of “Emotions Revealed” (Times Books, 2004) and originator (in 1969) of the term “display rules,” suggests that managers give workers in tough client-facing jobs outlets for their true feelings. “Maybe they need breakout sessions to debrief and vent,” he says.

One San Francisco Bay Area domestic violence organization does just that. Its counselors receive 40 hours of interpersonal skills training and regularly meet in support groups. And far from being required to “grin and bear it,” counselors are allowed, for example, to temporarily dismiss clients who are themselves becoming hostile, and to refer particularly trying situations and cases to other counselors. “We model healthy behavior for our clients, and we get complete affirmation on that from our executive director down,” says Leslie Portola [a pseudonym], community programs director for the organization.

“Dealing with life-and-death issues related to domestic violence every day is hard work,” says Portola. Her organization provides two crisis hotlines, legal advocacy, counseling, support groups, and housing to victims of domestic abuse. “We encourage our employees to take care of their own needs and emotions as part of that work.”

Whether they’re in a call center or crisis center, managers are the key to helping employees stay resilient wherever clients demand everything one’s got.

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