Just a number at work? Beware of the dangers



Beware of organisational dehumanisation. The phenomenon, which has been studied for some years by work and organisational psychology researchers, is spreading, and causing damage. Employees who feel their company sees them as just a tool or a number are forced to deal with negative emotions. This makes them uneasy, and their performance suffers. This is detrimental to everyone. UCLouvain PhD student Nathan Nguyen has studied this drift.

At work, employees must often control their emotions. In psychology, this is called emotional labour. Several factors contribute to it. How employees are treated has a significant influence on how they manage emotions. Mr Nguyen, who is pursuing his PhD at the Psychological Sciences Research Institute (IPSY), has analysed this phenomenon. Studies had already highlighted the impact of interpersonal mistreatment on emotional labour. The young researcher focused more specifically on the potential role of mistreatment inflicted by the distal and abstract entity that is the organisation, a concept called organisational dehumanisation.

Smile, you’re at work

‘Emotional labour in the workplace is the ability of a person to deal with negative emotions when they need to socially display positive emotions,’ Mr Nguyen explains. ‘Why do they need to? Essentially to respect the organisational rule of hiding bad moods. Also to maintain good relationships, especially with colleagues, and a friendly working climate.’ Employees who feel the company sees them as a tool or number will be tempted to adopt this behaviour at the risk of becoming mentally exhausted. ‘This is the strategy of “surface acting”, a kind of camouflaging of negative emotions, such as sadness or anger, behind a smile.’ His supervisor, Florence Stinglhamber, a professor of organisational and human resources psychology in the Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences, has been working for several years on the concept of organisational dehumanisation. ‘It’s been shown that when employees feel dehumanised by their organisation,’ she says, ‘they’re pushed to engage in more surface acting .’ The individual may also end up an automaton. ‘When you’re treated in a dehumanised way, you end up dehumanising yourself and behaving like a machine. You smile robotically.’ By hiding negative emotions, the person may experience a profound sense of unease that expresses itself through psychological strains, low self-esteem or job dissatisfaction. ‘Not feeling the emotions we express and not being in tune with what we really feel will exhaust our mental resources,’ Mr Nguyen explains. The company will have to deal with staff who are more exhausted, less performant and more often absent.

Happiness in the office

The thesis shows that it’s important to encourage organisations to reduce feelings of organisational dehumanisation in order to decrease surface acting, which is detrimental to employee well-being and performance. One way to do so is to urge organisations to nurture their staff’s work environment. According to the researchers, several factors can reduce the perception of being a number in the eyes of the company. First of all is employee relationships with their supervisor. They’re essential because the supervisor is seen as a representative of the organisation as a whole. Favourable working conditions, both in terms of the environment and type of tasks, are also crucial, as are pleasant and personalised offices, and work in which employees enjoy a degree of autonomy and can express their creativity. Finally, the company’s human resources practices and policy play an important role: Does it behave in a fair and supportive manner or does it ignore such values? ‘It’s crucial to pay attention to these different elements in order to prevent a feeling of dehumanisation and its unfortunate psychological consequences,’ Mr Nguyen emphasises.

A question of balance

The subject of the quality of human relationships in a professional environment takes on its full meaning in the context of the current health crisis. Telework, for example: many employees have been forced to work from home during confinement. Have the exceptional circumstances accentuated the feeling of dehumanisation? ‘Contrary to expectation,’ Prof. Stinglhamber explains, ‘dehumanisation has decreased overall during this period. This is probably because the crisis wasn’t of the organisation’s making. People who had the opportunity to telework took it as a sign that the company was taking care of them. But we found that those forced to continue to work normally, despite the situation, felt more dehumanised than teleworkers.’ People experienced very different situations, depending on their work environment and job. The researchers note, however, that some teleworkers felt very isolated and yet also more controlled. Although many tools were put in place to maintain virtual contact, real exchange was lacking. ‘We know that isolation is a factor that plays a major role in dehumanisation, and it’s important to be attentive to this. Working at home in normal times is rather positive, especially in terms of reconciling professional and private life. The trick is to find the right balance, in terms of the number of telework days per week, so that everyone can find their way and any potentially harmful effects can be controlled.’ A serene and productive work climate in all circumstances is in everyone’s interest. ‘We’re sounding the alarm,’ Mr Nguyen concludes. ‘Don’t sacrifice people for performance.’



Anne Mauclet

Published on October 01, 2020