Dr James Richards, an academic researcher at the Edinburgh Business School at Heriot-Watt University in the UK, is the lead research of a study (previously reported by NeuroWork here) into how managers cope with emotional labour for employees. He spoke to NeuroWork about the importance of training and support for managers by large organisations, especially for those who go out of their way to support their ND employees.
NeuroWork: Your research looks at the emotional labour of line managers who oversee neurodivergent staff. What exactly do you mean by emotional labour?
Emotional labour isn’t something new, but began to attract a lot more attention from the 1970s onwards with the rise in service work, particularly people who face frontline customers. The classic example is studying how flight attendants have to deal with quite tricky customers and manage their emotions to ‘always have a smile.’ That's a kind of really superficial take on emotional labour.
But the emotional labour that I’m interested in really related to any work that involves care. How do you manage your deeper emotions involved in the work that you do? In modern workplaces, a big focus for line managers is about getting the best from your employees. So emotional labour is expended managing the emotions of your employees and caring for them in a genuine way.
NeuroWork: Why is this research relevant?
Almost every modern organisation now makes statements about how they wish to be more diverse and inclusive. What our research suggests is that if you really want to be an equality-minded employer, then you need to invest in line managers skilled in emotional labour. They are the people who are closest to your employees and are the ones who do the HR practice on the ground
Emotional labour allows you to be able to think more creatively and use empathy with your employees. I mean, how can you be inclusive and recognize diversity if you haven't got those qualities?
Line managers should be recruited on the basis of having such skills, or organisations should at least train them in this area. Also it’s a good generic skill, they will just genuinely become better line managers, because line managers are your frontline, dealing with 10, 20, even 30 or possibly more people.
NeuroWork: How did you go about the study?
It was a two stage affair. In 2013/14, we did some broader neurodiversity research on behalf of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, which is a white collar union in the UK.
The transport sector has been somewhat of a magnet, if you like, for neurodiverse employees; the idea of trains and transport tends to draw people with such conditions. In this round, we interviewed about 18 people. We asked people who are neurodivergent about their experience of work, and we became interested in line managers as well.
In 2016/17, we were asked again by the same union to do more targeted research that would support line manager training, so that they could better manage neurodiverse employees. Through a mix of face-to-face and telephone interviews, we spoke to about 10 people in the end.
A lot of people in this sector work antisocial shifts, or travel quite a lot, so it took quite some time and effort to track people down. Although in terms of numbers, this wasn’t as many as a large survey, collectively it was very rich, in-depth data. We would spend as much as 90 minutes just speaking to line managers to get some really amazing insight into what they're actually involved in.
NeuroWork: What did the line managers say?
To be clear, I don't want anyone to think that neurodivergent employees should see themselves as a burden. We were very much focused on the skill attributes of line managers and what they need to make a positive impact.
We found that a lot of emotional labour involved was pretty standard stuff that most people probably do in their jobs. For instance, somebody may say something you disagree with. You don't necessarily display that in your emotions, you hold that thought and let it go, because perhaps it's not the most important thing. In other contexts, that requires managers to listen to an employee and offer supportive words.
But with some cases we had interviewed, the emotional labour required was quite extensive. Many of the line managers went out of their way—beyond their contract—to help the neurodivergent employees. When the organisation just didn't give the manager enough time to do their work more generally, this became a problem. With a very difficult workload to manage, almost anything extra on top of that was likely to lead to stress or difficulty.
We found that under the standard HR culture we see in most workplaces, often the line manager had competing responsibilities. They not only had to manage their relationship with their neurodivergent employee, they also had to manage that employee within the context of a team, and in some situations, manage the interface between the employee and their customers.