The Cost of the Emotional Labor on the Senior Living Space

Could more be done to support frontline workers?

Those who have worked in senior living communities know it can be both challenging and rewarding. With this in mind, one survey and one study conducted within the senior industry have recently caught my eye.

The Distressing Worker Shortage in the Senior Living Industry

In August 2018, Argentum surveyed senior living executives, executive directors and other decision makers, regarding current business conditions in the industry and their outlook for 2019. ( Argentum Newsletter October 12, 2018, Survey: Workforce Issues Remain Top Concern Among Executives and Decision Makers)

Significantly, 86% of senior living leaders reported that staff recruitment and retention is the biggest challenge to their company and that they will continue to face this issue throughout 2019. Worse, employee turnover is trending higher. The biggest challenge is finding frontline workers (i.e. healthcare and food service). This not only impacts the ability of the industry to grow, but it also inevitably affects its ability to provide quality care and services to a rapidly growing aging population.

I was impressed by the insight of Brent Weil, vice president of workforce development, Argentum. He notes that “there may have been a time when workforce was the responsibility of our HR departments. This survey demonstrates why operators are adopting new strategies for recruitment and retention as key to their organizational growth and success.” His remarks made me think that every aspect of how an organization treats, values, grows and compensates their employees may come into play to make a difference in this shortage.

The second study I came across was conducted by the Mather Lifeways Institute on Aging (“May I Help You?” Engagement and Emotional Labor in Frontline Senior Living Employees, Jordan Stein, PhD, Senior Research Associate April 2016 ).

Researchers explored an often-overlooked aspect of staff-resident relationships within a senior community called “emotional labor” (EL). They wanted to know if there were additional ways to support frontline worker engagement, as they are in a customer service role and typically called upon to present a positive, solution-oriented approach in their communication with older adults. You might not be surprised to learn that there are occasions where front line workers feel frustrated or less than positive, because they cannot solve the problem or simply because of a challenging or negative interaction while trying to help. Many employers, naturally, expect their staff to maintain a positive tone and presentation of emotions; this becomes a challenge for the worker, particularly if they are not skilled in empathizing with customers.

What is Emotional Labor?

EL specifically refers to the demands placed on frontline workers to:

  • successfully regulate their emotions;
  • display certain types of positive emotions (even when that is the opposite of what they feel); and
  • regularly behave in ways that are inconsistent with their emotions.

In other words, a high level of emotional labor requires that one perform contrary to one’s emotions, day-in and day-out. Imagine performing your job well with little training in regulating emotions and not having an understanding of your own emotional intelligence. Does this expectation add a significant EL “load” on workers? Can we expect workers to stay when a key expectation of them in their work is depleting, frustrating and feels inauthentic?

I suggest that there is a connection between a workforce that is stressed by the demands of EL and the industry quandary to recruit and retain employees.

To look at this issue fully, it is also true that that work high in EL can also be highly rewarding and energizing, particularly if workers understand the positive impact they can have on residents. Providing awareness of EL in the senior living industry includes staff being cognizant of how to interact with residents in the most friendly, compassionate, and understanding ways possible while at the same time providing them tools to reduce the inevitable tensions that difficult situations create.

My wish is for a win-win-win for the resident “customer” and their families, Life Care community management and HR, and the frontline worker. When the industry response matches it’s worker’s needs, perhaps we will see frontline worker jobs as an attractive employment option. I want to see workplaces where frontline workers are provided staff development opportunities and coaching to cultivate empathic responses to those around them. I want to see workplaces where deep listening is a core value. I want to see frontline workers able to attune to their own emotions as they, simultaneously, respond in a positive, solution-oriented way as they communicate with older adults, family members and even their coworkers. This requires a dedicated training track for all new frontline workers in the senior industry.

I want to live in a world that holds the senior industry up as a leader in creating compassionate environments for all of us as we age.

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