Deep acting at work

by | Jun 4, 2018 | Blog, Flourishing Female, Workplace Psychology | 0 comments


Mid-afternoon on Wednesday I witnessed an act of tenderness just beyond the men’s polo shirts on the second floor of St Albans Marks & Spencer. It’s stayed with me because it’s uncommon practice and something we need more of in our workplaces. In this month’s musing I’m talking about kindness and burnout at work.

A little bird-like lady of a certain age was sharing the goings-on in her life as though the 20-something on the other side of the counter had all the back story for these latest scenes to make sense. As it turns out, she did. Little lovely lady sensed a queue building, turned around to check and saw me and three others waiting patiently-ish. The M&S 20-something (called Liv) continued to look completely absorbed in the little old lady, told her it was fine and to carry on telling her story. It was at this point the M&S lady who’d helped me return three-not-quite-right pairs of kiddie flipflops at a different counter appeared, as if by magic, with another colleague in tow to bring the queue under control. I asked whether M&S staff were being trained to look out for loneliness and give older members of our communities this sort of undivided attention. The answer was no: Liv is just a kind, caring colleague who’s built a relationship with this little old lady who comes in every Wednesday.

Two days before I spent close to an hour chatting with a stranger about how his 11 year old son had been close to death through an eating disorder. The conversation happened quite by accident as I’d disclosed something deeply personal about the goings on in my own family to explain why I was where I was (the place where the conversation happened). He told me at the end that he’d never shared his child’s story beyond immediate family and friends. I was shocked that no one at work knew a jot about what he’d been going through – and continues to go through each day to support his son. He gave me many reasons why he hadn’t disclosed, all rational and understandable, but still deeply troubling. There’s way too much masking going on in our workplaces.

I listened to an episode of psychologist Adam Grant’s Work Life podcast this week talking emotions at work and the difference between ‘masking’ and ‘deep acting.’ The former can lead to burnout, the latter a helpful coping tool. Either Liv genuinely cared about her customer or was using the deep acting method to cope with the strain of serving the great British public hour after hour.

Deep acting is where we try and genuinely feel something (compassion or interest, for example) instead of slapping on a smile and pretending we’re loving whatever we find ourselves ‘having’ to do. I found myself doing a spot of deep acting when I was exhausted and feeling a bit sorry for myself last week (sleep deficit – I’ve v’logged about it over on the Mothers Work! FB page 18/5/18). It genuinely helped me get through the hour and give the other person what she needed.

Adam Grant discovered through his research that workers who focus on the people who benefit from their work tend to be more energised than people who don’t. And that this focus acts as a protective mechanism against burnout. My own experience tells me he’s right.


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