The Sociology of Emotions in Medical Practice: An Ethnographic Case Study of Health Care Interactions
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Typically, medical training does not prepare healthcare workers to deal with emotions in medical practice, which can cause them to shut down emotionally and withdraw from patients as a way of protecting themselves. Recent work demonstrates how emotions play an essential role in healthcare relations and patient care delivery and, as such, call for greater attention in sociological research. The primary aim of this exploratory research was to uncover and understand the emotional, social interactions of healthcare workers in a Canadian hospital context. The findings of this study come from a combination of ethnographic field research and 28 in-depth interviews with various healthcare professionals within one Canadian hospital. A principal finding is an expectation for healthcare workers to follow “feeling rules,” which are socialized through a hidden curriculum and specific ward cultures. The main cause of sadness at work comes from what is commonly known as a “bad death,” while anger mainly emanates from poor interactions and relationships with colleagues. Participants report that interactions with colleagues are the primary source of happiness, along with recognition from their patients (the chief source of happiness and accomplishment). The encouragement to suppress emotions in the workplace and the lack of recognition and support for emotional distress from hospital management had a negative effect on the personal lives of healthcare staff. The workplace expectations for healthcare workers to hide their negative emotions render such experiences invisible, and further leave staff to deal with such emotions alone. These findings are important for understanding how to effectively prepare healthcare workers to recognize and process emotions encountered in medical practice, and to make negative emotional experiences visible.