Feeling like the enemy: the emotion management and alienation of hospital doctors
Introduction: Globally, an epidemic of psychological distress, burnout, and workforce attrition signify an acute deterioration in hospital doctors' relationship with their work—intensified by COVID-19. This deterioration is more complicated than individual responses to workplace stress, as it is heavily regulated by social, professional, and organizational structures. Moving past burnout as a discrete “outcome,” we draw on theories of emotion management and alienation to analyze the strategies through which hospital doctors continue to provide care in the face of resource-constraints and psychological strain.
Methods: We used Mobile Instant Messaging Ethnography (MIME), a novel form of remote ethnography comprising a long-term exchange of digital messages to elicit “live” reflections on work-life experiences and feelings.
Results: The results delineate two primary emotion-management strategies—acquiescence and depersonalization—used by the hospital doctors to suppress negative feelings and emotions (e.g., anger, frustration, and guilt) stemming from the disconnect between professional norms of expertise and self-sacrifice, and organizational realities of impotence and self-preservation.
Discussion: Illustrating the continued relevant of alienation, extending its application to doctors who disconnect to survive, we show how the socio-cultural ideals of the medical profession (expertise and self-sacrifice) are experienced through the emotion-management and self-estrangement of hospital doctors. Practically, the deterioration of hospital doctors' relationship with work is a threat to health systems and organizations. The paper highlights the importance of understanding the social structures and disconnects that shape this deteriorating relationship and the broad futility of self-care interventions embedded in work contexts of unrealized professional ideals, organizational resource deficits and unhappy doctors, patients, and families.
Health Research Board (HRB) in Ireland via an Emerging Investigator Award (EIA-2017-022)
Author affiliationDepartment of Population Health Sciences, University of Leicester
- VoR (Version of Record)