Surface acting as a predictor of emotional exhaustion in Portuguese social workers

Joseph R. Merighi, Maria Cesaltina Dinis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The purpose of this study is to explore the relationship between various approaches used to manage one's emotions in the workplace and feeling emotionally exhausted. To be effective practitioners, social workers need to be highly proficient at managing their emotions on the job. For example, social workers are at risk to suffer from physical and emotional exhaustion because their jobs often require them to be emotionally accessible to care seekers and to display organizationally desired responses. The management of such workplace emotions is referred to as emotional labor. Because emotional labor is intrinsic to social work practice, the meaning and influence of emotional reactions on a social worker's professional comportment and well-being merit investigation. A sample of 370 social workers from mainland Portugal, Madeira, and the Azores was obtained for this study. All members of the Social Work Professional Association as of July 2005 (N = 1,260) were sent a 134-item mail survey that assessed professional roles, practice-related issues, and alcohol and drug use. In addition, the following measures were included: Job Satisfaction Survey, Job-Related Affective Well-Being Scale, Job-Related Emotional Exhaustion Scale, Quantitative Workload Inventory, Emotional Labor Scale, and the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule. The survey instrument was developed in American English, translated into Portuguese with the assistance of certified translators at the Portuguese Center of Social Work History and Research in Lisbon, Portugal, and back-translated to assure its clarity and accuracy. The response rate was 29.4%. Of the 370 completed surveys, we selected for analysis only those respondents who worked 20 hours or more per week (N = 310). Hierarchical regression analysis was used to test the relationship between four types of emotional labor (surface acting-hiding; surface acting-faking; deep actingmanaging; deep acting-refocusing) and job-related emotional exhaustion, after controlling for gender, negative affectivity, and workload. The final model was statistically significant, F (7, 301) = 35.6, p <.001, and explained 45.3% of the variance in emotional exhaustion (adjusted R square =.440). Findings indicated that only one type of emotional labor (i.e., surface acting that involves hiding one's felt emotions) significantly predicted emotional exhaustion (β =.19, p <.001) and explained 5% of the variance in the final model. Research on the expression of emotions in the workplace offers important conceptual understandings of the deleterious effect that surface acting can have on psychological well-being. Findings can be used by students, feld agency supervisors, and social work practitioners to understand the importance of authentic emotional expression in the workplace, and to develop professionally appropriate ways to manage emotionally difficult situations on the job.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)303-310
Number of pages8
JournalInternational Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2008


  • Deep acting
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Emotional labor
  • Portuguese
  • Surface acting


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