How ‘Emotional Labor’ Burns Out Senior Living Staff

Senior living frontline staff learn to master many skills on the job—including, as it turns out, a type of behavior that they feel is expected of them and can lead to burnout.

Specifically, these staff regularly engage in surface acting, which means acting one way on the surface but feeling another way on the inside, all while not empathizing with the other person they’re interacting with. By definition, surface acting is a form of “emotional labor” that, in practice and over time, can take a toll on the actor.

In senior living, frontline staff know that this type of behavior is expected of them. In fact, the overwhelming majority—92%—of senior living frontline staff know they are expected to manage any negative feelings they may experience on the job in order to maintain positive interactions with residents. In other words, they know they are expected to “surface act” while on the job.


That’s according to a new report from the research arm of Evanston, Illinois-based senior living provider Mather LifeWays, the Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging.

‘May I Help You?’ Engagement and Emotional Labor in Frontline Senior Living Employees,” authored by Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging Senior Research Associate Jordan Stein, analyzed the responses from a 26-item questionnaire filled out by  37 frontline employees at a Chicago-area life plan community (formerly known as a continuing care retirement community, or CCRC.)

There’s a positive correlation between recognizing the expectations had of senior living staff when it comes to showing negative emotions and the frequency with which senior living staff reported engaging in surface acting, the report says.


Additionally, there is a significant relationship between the amount of surface acting reported and the time spent interacting with residents, the report says. In other words, the longer a staff member spends interacting with residents, the more likely he or she is to express feelings for the benefit of the resident, as opposed to expressing actual negative feelings. 

It is critical to determine what route of emotional labor staff tend to use to manage their emotions when interacting with residents, the report says, noting that if they are using more surface acting, it appears they are at an increased risk of burnout.

“Moreover, taking steps to help employees feel rather than simply present positive emotions may have numerous direct and indirect benefits, including reduced employee stress and burnout, greater jobs satisfaction, and reduced turnover,” the report concludes.

Written by Mary Kate Nelson

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