Literature on generic/technical skills and the emotional labour of public service work

For the public servant working in this relational, co-productive state, it is widely argued that they will need a set of skills which are different from those of the past. Davidson (1) writes about ‘twenty-first century literacies’. These include: interpersonal skills (facilitation, empathy, political skills); synthesising skills (sorting evidence, analysis, making judgements, offering critique and being creative); organising skills for group work, collaboration and peer review; communication skills, making better use of new media and multi-media resources (2). The editors of the IPPR collection on The Relational State suggest that it will involve a skill set which is different to that of the ‘delivery state’, including: ‘the ability to empathise, communicate, listen and mobilise coalitions of citizens and professionals to achieve social goals’ (3, p.10). For example, Mulgan’s contribution to this collection suggests that clinicians ‘make healthcare more like education, deliberately aiming to raise the skills of the public through, for instance, courses or e-tutorials’ to support people with diabetes and dementia’ (4, p.21).

New communication technologies are responding to and reinforcing public expectations of transparency and accountability from public services. The immediacy and intimacy of new forms of social media demand that public services depart from the formal and prolonged responses to feedback that prevailed in the past (5). The screening of council meetings online and the willingness of some public service staff to blog and tweet in real time about their work and ideas is setting new standards for what counts as effective communication. A key skill in this digital environment is the ability to make effective use of these new interfaces, telling clear narratives to a range of different audiences.

Much of the high profile debate about these skills has been undertaken within health and social care, but they are becoming live debates in a wide range of professions. For example in a report on regeneration professionals, Adamson and Lang (6) argued, that there are two broad skill sets required:

‘Connective skills: The practices, attitudes, values and relationships that enable practitioners to work collaboratively, to merge organizational objectives and to recognise the shared responsibility for successful delivery. These areas of activity are often seen as personal attributes and whilst it is true that these person-orientated skills come easier to some people than others we also believe that people can be trained to be competent in these areas of increasingly important professional activities.

Delivery skills: The skills required to translate vision to successful completion of projects by combining and unifying the contributions of a wide range of agencies and actors’ (6, p.38).

Many of these skills fall under a heading of ‘soft skills’, indeed a survey of public service employers by Hay found that employers valued ‘soft skills’ such as communication as highly as technical skills when recruiting new staff (7). However, there is also a greater emphasis on what might be termed ‘hard’ skills around contracting and decommissioning. What is distinctive about these skills, perhaps, is not the distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ but between the techno-professional and the generic cross-sectoral.

These changing needs demand new types of integrated skills training. However higher education and other training and development and support continues to offer highly specialised and professional pathways that lead to particular professional qualifications (2). Post-qualification training remains focused on particular sectors. Those which look cross-sectorally tend to be leadership programmes. There is a tendency to assume that public service careers are linear and specialised and therefore predictable.

Emotional Labour

In responding to the ‘recruitment for values’ movement discussed above, Cole-King and Gilbert (8) have pointed out that compassion is not only a value, it is also a skill. Thus recruitment needs to focus on the extent to which people have a set of competencies which will enable them to behave with compassion in high-stress environments and to cope with the emotional labour that care entails (9,10).

Emotional labour is defined as, ‘the expression of one’s capacity to manage personal emotions, sense others’ emotions, and to respond appropriately, based on one’s job’ (10, p.125). In its response to the Francis Report into events at Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, the government explicitly evoked the concept of ‘The Emotional Labour of Care’, writing: ‘Working in health and care is inherently emotionally demanding. To support staff to act consistently with openness and compassion, teams need to be given time and space to reflect on the challenging emotional impact of health and care work’ (11, p.31).

This increased awareness of the need for resilient responses to emotional labour constitutes a new dimension of public service practice. However there are challenges here for traditional notions of professionalism and distance. Relational services could be interpreted as those in which ‘authentic’ connections are made between people using and providing services, whereas the literature on emotional labour places an emphasis on performance and the suppression of feelings. For Mastracci et al, emotional labour requires that workers ‘suppress their private feelings, in order to show “desirable” work-related emotion’ (10). The emotional labour literature envisages a careful preservation of professional boundaries as part of self-care (9).

Potential tensions between relating/emoting and maintaining distance can be seen in the debate around personal assistants within social care. Personal assistants may have the opportunity to build intimacy, with time spent with an employer in a home setting contributing to emotional closeness. Glendinning et al drew on focus group discussions with personal assistants to observe that, ‘Personal assistants also appreciated the emotional quality of the relationship which they developed with an employer over time’ (14, p.206). However Leece highlights the difficulties which personal assistants may experience in establishing boundaries and appropriate working practices: ‘…the direct employment relationships were designed by employers primarily to serve their own interests, and the friendly, family-type arrangements they created resulted in obligations that made it difficult for workers to exit the arrangement, despite the many shortcomings of their position’ (15, p.202).

Such themes are gaining more attention in the public management literature, in the so-called ‘turn to affect’. The affective realm is that which is concerned with emotion and until recently has been a neglected element of public management and governance literatures (16). Wagenaar and Cook suggest that, ‘emotion is not only…an inevitable accompaniment of action, but…a necessary element of perception’ (17, p155). A focus on ‘relationality’ helps to surface the psychosocial connections between politics and emotions, recognising that feelings and anxieties frame people’s judgements of value and investments in ideas and institutions (18). This developing area of the literature calls for different approaches to research, ones that focus on the micro-level of practice rather than simply looking at organisations and institutions. It has developed in reaction to those areas of the literature that tend to paint public service workers as passive actors, devoid of agency.

Studies of emotion have started to better understand the ways in which professionals view everyday practice and the kinds of issues that would be well worth attending to in the context of reform As Janet Newman (19) illustrates, where individuals span boundaries they are more likely to draw on emotional work. If the future of public service roles is to involve greater boundary traversing then this is likely to become of even greater importance to public servants. Taken together, what this work ultimately suggests is emotion is an integral part of the everyday practice of all public service professionals and not just necessarily that who work in the sphere of care.


  1. Davidson C. So last century Times Higher Education. 2011(28th April):32-6.
  2. University of Birmingham Policy Commission. ‘When tomorrow comes’: the future of local public services. Birmingham: 2011 2011. Report No.
  3. Cooke G, Muir R. The Relational State. London: IPPR: 2012
  4. Mulgan G. Government with the people: the outlines of a relational state. In: Cooke G, Muir R, editors. The Relational State. London: IPPR2012.
  5. Jeffares S. Policy making and social media: interpreting hashtag politics. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan; 2014.
  6. Adamson D, Lang M. New skills for regeneration professionals (A Consideration of Current and Future Requirements). CREW Regeneration Wales: 2013.
  7. Hays. Changing face of public sector, how employers need to adapt.
  8. Cole-King A, Gilbert P. Compassionate care; the Theory and the Reality. Journal of Holistic Healthcare. 2011;8(3 December).
  9. Sawbridge Y, Hewison A. Time to Care? Responding to Concerns about Poor Nursing Care. Birmingham: Health Services Management Centre, : 2011.
  10. Mastracci SH, Newman MA, Guy ME. Emotional labor: Why and how to teach it. Journal of Public Affairs Education. 2010:123-41.
  11. Department of health. Patients First and Foremost, The Initial Government Response to the Report of The Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust Public Inquiry,. London: The Stationery Office. : 2013.
  12. Glendinning C, Halliwell S, Jacobs S, Rummery K, Tyer J. New Kinds of Care, New Kinds of Relationships: How Purchasing Affects Relationships in Giving and Receiving Personal Assistance. Health and Social Care in the Community. 2000;8(3):201-11.
  13. Leece J. Paying the piper and calling the tune: Power and the direct payment relationship. British Journal of Social Work. 2010;Advance Access, 10.1093/bjsw/bcn085.
  14. Dickinson H. Performing governance: Partnerships, culture and New Labour. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan; 2014.
  15. Wagenaar H, Cook SDN. Understanding policy practices: action, dialective and deliberation in policy analysis. In: Hajer MA, Wagenaar H, editors. Deliberative policy analysis: understanding governance in the network society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2003. p. 139-71.
  16. Hunter S. Ordering differentiation: reconfiguring governance as relational politics. Journal of Psycho-Social Studies. 2012;6(1):3-29.
  17. Newman J. Working the spaces of power: Activism, Neoliberalism and Gendered Work. London: Bloomsbury Academic; 2012.


One thought on “Literature on generic/technical skills and the emotional labour of public service work

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s