Being nice takes its toll

Study examines customer service stress
By Asha Tomlinson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/04/2003

The customer is always right. For those working in the service industry, that’s the name of the game. While service with a smile makes clients happy, what about its effect on the worker? Cecelia Benoit, University of Victoria sociology professor, has a hunch it has a negative health impact.

“The work involves managing customers’ feelings about the service they’re receiving while sometimes hiding or disguising their own emotions,” said Benoit.

Benoit is the principal investigator of the research project,

Marginalized Populations’ Work, Health and Access to Services

. She, along with a team of colleagues, will be observing 300 hairstylists, sex workers, waiters and bartenders over a two-year period to assess the mental issues these workers face by always having to please the customer. Benoit said it is primarily women who work in these occupations which are often low-paying and provide little autonomy. The researchers received a $200,000 grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to produce this study.

“Employers may not be aware of this (job stress) until it explodes. These small demands can build up and become big. If we could only talk about it more and see it as an aspect to the job.”

Arlie Hochschild, a University of California at Berkeley sociologist, found similar results when studying flight attendants and bill collectors in her 1983 book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. She argues that workers who constantly interact with the public engage in “emotional labour” which can separate them from their own true feelings. In essence, they are controlling their emotions the way actors do.

“Arlie Hochschild talks about service acting where you give a response, you pretend to smile. It’s service acting,” said Benoit.

“What’s very interesting is the packaging of your emotions and presenting a positive image, it’s part of the job. It’s actually the core of the job and if you’re not successful at doing it, then you’re not good at the job.”

The stress of service work can also be attributed to workers having high demands and low control in their jobs, which can lead to health problems including chronic pain, coronary problems and depression.

A 1998 report by Statistics Canada showed job strain — the balance of the psychological demands of the job and the amount of control or decision-making power — had a lot to do with work stress. The work stress scores were high for both men and women in the service sector.

“They have to respond to serving the needs of customers and they can’t control the flow,” said Kathryn Wilkins, co-author of The Statistics Canada study

Work Stress and Health

. “That’s part of why those in service have the highest job strain. Job insecurity, the physical demands of the work, co-worker and supervisor support also have an effect.”

The report indicated psychological distress was highest for women who worked in service. That’s because people expect women to do well in these types of jobs, Benoit said.

Women are stereotyped as being “naturally nice” and therefore customer service is not “work” for them, she said.

It’s similar to the work of a stay-at-home mom, she continued. Taking care of children is still not considered work, however, if we were to pay mothers for care giving, it would take a large chunk out of the economy. “You’re supposed to care for a customer in this same way and it’s not seen as (hard) work.”

It is even harder work when those in service have to rely on tips. Take for example the food and beverage industry, said Benoit. People tend to work at low-level salary medians and make extra income through tips.

“So there’s this extra burden because if you don’t please a customer, you won’t get a good tip.”

Barb Williams, president of Local 40 of the Hotel Restaurant and Culinary Employees and Bartenders Union in British Columbia, said it’s tough these days to make tips.

“Employers are implementing a service charge and most people think that goes to the employee but they only get a small portion of that.”

Williams agrees it can be difficult working with the general public, but most times it’s management that’s causing most of the headache.

“You go into a workplace with management pushing and prodding you at all times and it can make for a stressful environment,” she said.

Service workers in the retail industry have certainly witnessed the strain of competition. With the tough competitive pressures facing Canadian retailers — many are trying to catch up to U.S. rival Wal-Mart — employees are being pushed to their limits. In August, 800 Hudson’s Bay employees (represented by the Canadian Auto Workers union) went on strike mainly over the issue of incentive pay. The company was going to offer all unionized employees a 1.5 per cent increase each year over a three-year period, and a potential three per cent increase would be based on performance. But CAW representatives said the incentive pay classifications were too subjective.

Management needs to compensate employees properly for the work they do, Williams said. A lot of stressful situations come out of frustration over low wages. Employers need to take employee’s concerns and personal problems into consideration too.

“That all plays a part and when you have to go into work and have to give a smile, it can be very difficult,” she said.

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