Jennifer Newman

Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman. (Jennifer Newman )

Researchers have found the demand for employees to control themselves at work — especially in the service sector — is increasing, says workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman.

Newman sat down with The Early Edition host Rick Cluff to talk about a recent study published in the Journal of Personnel Psychology which suggests that this increased requirement for self-control can have a negative psychological effects on workers.

Rick Cluff: Is being able to control yourself really becoming an important job requirement?

Jennifer Newman: Yes, that's what the research is telling us. The demand to control emotions, behaviour and thoughts at work is increasing due to the nature of the kind of work we do. Ensuring one remains professional in demeanour and conduct requires self-control.

You can see this especially in call centres where workers have to regulate their emotions, especially when faced with angry callers. Other places you might see this include positions in:

  • Government
  • Healthcare
  • Administration
  • Nursing homes
  • Teaching
  • Restaurants and other service industries
  • Retail Stores

What is it that workers are trying to control exactly?

We're seeing an increase in the need to control impulses, resist distractions and overcome inner resistance.Let's look at impulse control — workers are having to self-censor more. Blurting out whatever's on your mind can be a serious career limiting move. It always was, but the difference is mistakes aren't forgiven as easily.

The expectation is workers will filter what they say. So, outbursts of emotion like anger or frustration aren't acceptable. Huffiness, grumpiness or drama, are all frowned upon.

What about the requirement to resist distractions?  That's a tall order if you work in a cubicle, isn't it?

Yes, it can be. Still, self-control requires finding ways to not get sidetracked. It requires a certain amount of self-control to avoid surfing the net, catching the latest gossip or doing irrelevant tasks to procrastinate. It takes a lot of self-control to focus on a task and to not let distractions get in the way — especially if the task is complex.

You mentioned workers needed to control inner-resistance more now than ever?

Yes, that refers to the struggle we have with not wanting to do something that we're supposed to be doing. You know you should do it, but you fight with yourself to get going on it. It takes a lot of self-control to win those battles.

For example, there was a worker who struggled every time he had to fill in quarterly forms. He lacked self-control and put it off until he got in trouble. He started to use the fear of having his boss come down on him to finish, but that's not a long-term strategy.

Not controlling yourself at work may be bad for your career, but all this self-control can't be good for you either?

Yes, there is a big downside. Research has found there can be a large toll if you have to always censor what you say and act happy and be patient when you're not feeling that way, or are stuck doing mind-numbing or repetitive things

It can lead to:

  • Increased burn out.
  • Absenteeism.
  • Emotional exhaustion.
  • Sleep problems.
  • High blood pressure and heart rate.
  • Depressive symptoms.
  • Physical fatigue.

What can organizations and workers do if they find a lack of self-control is an issue?

Managers can have more discussions with their employees about how work gets done. This gives workers more influence over how they do their work. Giving employee's lots of input into what tasks to take on, and how to schedule things is important. Planning with employees, as opposed for them, is key.

Get staff undistracted time if they are working on something complex or it requires focus. Limit meetings in crunch times. If a worker has been dealing with a situation requiring a lot of emotional control, give them a long break. Also, let workers tackle difficult things after recharging.

Also, don't heap the next big thing on a team that just finished a complex project. Keep things positive by recognizing how much it takes to do the job. 

Managers should also help workers psychologically detach from work. That means letting workers get away mentally from work and its demands. Also, encouraging workers to cultivate non-work related interests helps.

Maintaining self-control is work. It's part of the job many times. But self-control is a finite resource and needs replenishing. 

This interview has been edited and condensed


To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman says an increased demand for self-control at work comes at a cost