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Exposing the emotional toll of probation work

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09 March 2022

Exposing the emotional toll of probation work

Senior Lecturer In Law

REF 2021

This case study was included as part of the Research Excellence Framework for 2021:

Wednesday 9 March • Viewing time: 1 minute

Our research has raised awareness of how probation workers use their emotions to carry out their job — and helped make their wellbeing a priority.

Probation practitioners work with offenders in prison as well as supporting ex-offenders as they are reintegrated into society after a prison sentence. In their work with their clients in prison or in the community they fulfil two important roles — keeping the public safe, and helping rehabilitate ex-offenders. 

In both aspects of their work, they use their emotions to carry out their job. This can affect them emotionally as well as impact on their personal lives, with work spilling over into family life.

But there has been little official recognition of this kind of ‘emotional labour’ in the probation service. That’s why I led a team of researchers to determine exactly how probation workers were using their emotions — and how to support them to improve their wellbeing.

Our work has led to new training for probation managers, and a bigger focus on employee wellbeing throughout the service.

To discover how, first let me explain just what emotional labour is. You might well recognise it in your own job.

What is emotional labour?

Emotional labour is a sociological term that basically means using your emotions for a wage. 

Although it’s rarely put in these terms, many employers require their staff to perform emotionally in their job. From cabin crew to call centre workers, nurses to supermarket staff, many roles include a significant element of emotional performance.

For example, when facing an angry customer in a cafe, a server might be expected to display empathy, sympathy and reassurance, in order to calm down the situation. In some cases the worker will be provided with an emotional script which provides guidance on what emotions to use. But in others they are left to work out how to do this in their own way.

Although both employer and employee understand what emotions they are expected to perform, it is not usually recognised formally as a part of the job. This can mean that staff are not supported adequately, with detrimental effects on their wellbeing.

How do probation workers use their emotions?

We conducted a survey of over 1,500 frontline probation workers, following up with over 60 in-depth interviews. We found that emotional labour is vital in order for them to get to know and understand their clients. This includes displaying positive emotions and suppressing negative ones.

There are three main ways emotions are used to display expected emotions such as empathy to clients.

The first is called ‘deep acting’. This is where the probation practitioner would tap into their feelings by thinking about an experience they have had, in order to make a connection with the client. 

The second is called ‘surface acting’. This is the suppression of often negative emotions in order to build a relationship. For example, they might feel disgust or anger at something the client says, but they can’t show it or they risk breaking their bond of trust.

The third is a genuine emotional response, where they may say how they truly feel but must control it. For example, a probation officer may be pleased that a client has secured a job, but they keep their satisfaction measured given the professional relationship with the client, as well as the fact that the client may be back again in the future.

The effects on wellbeing

All of this emotional labour is demanding on the probation workers. Dealing with high-risk offenders was described to us as emotionally ‘relentless’. Practitioners we spoke to had an acute sense of anxiety about working with clients who pose a high risk of harm. 

And we found that probation work affects staff’s lives outside of work. Officers found their job intruding on their family lives. This was exacerbated during the Covid pandemic.

Probation workers can develop a skewed view of the world, based on working with clients. Their insight into criminal actions can cause a kind of hypervigilance, where they see danger in places others don’t — for example, when taking their kids swimming some would check for hidden mirrors under changing room doors.

Officers also feel personally responsible for the behaviour of their clients, which can lead to them spending the weekend worrying about what they are up to.

Protecting the protectors

All of these emotional burdens can have serious consequences for probation staff. For the first time, our research identified the risk of burnout which could lead to good probation officers leaving the service. 

We highlighted the importance of emotional labour and sought to bring it into the centre of the profession, helping to develop and implement a new framework for line management meetings in the National Probation Service (now known as the Probation Service). Now probation workers are routinely asked about their emotional wellbeing as part of regular one-to-one meetings.

We also helped develop training about emotion and emotional wellbeing. Senior probation officers now attend a full day of training on the topic, which is a big investment.

Probation practitioners have to be highly emotionally skilled. Most do the job because they believe fundamentally in a person’s capacity to change. They want to help ex-offenders improve their lives. The emotional labour they perform in doing so is incredibly intricate — and important.

So it’s equally important that they are recognised and rewarded, and supported and protected. That’s what our research is helping to do.

Staff

Dr Chalen Westaby

Senior Lecturer In Law

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REF 2021 Research Excellence Framework logo

About this project

Explore the people and organisations behind this research, and find related publications by the research team.

Related courses

Our teaching is informed by research. Browse undergraduate and postgraduate courses with links to this research project, topic or team.

Get in touch

Find key contacts for enquiries about funding, partnerships, collaborations and doctoral degrees.

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