To express their emotions at work, people use so-called "scripts" that primarily reflect social expectations. In a new study, Nina Jörden investigates why this is problematic for their wellbeing.
International Space Station (ISS) Expedition 22 flight engineer T.J. Creamer sent the first ever Tweet from space on 22 January 2010:
Astronauts on board the ISS had just gained personal access to the internet, allowing them to share their experiences during a space mission. More than a decade later, astronauts’ Twitter accounts provide a unique insight into their emotional experiences in their extreme work environment.
Even though the job of an astronaut is so distinctive, it contains elements that can also be found in many other professions:
- Extreme working conditions
- Characterised by technical rather than emotional knowledge and communication
- A public image individuals in the profession are expected to live up to
Surgeons are portrayed in the media as intelligent, confident and decisive individuals who have to work long hours and remain focused and calm during high-risk operations. Professional athletes are under intense pressure to perform and maintain a certain image of competitiveness and toughness. Soldiers are perceived as heroes in times of war and national crises and have to control their emotions to ensure their own safety and that of colleagues and citizens. Politicians’ emotional reactions are often interpreted as signs of incompetence, a lack of toughness and resilience, or an attempt to cover up their mistakes.
There are some parallels between politicians’ isolating working conditions and those of an astronaut, as former first minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon made clear in her resignation speech in February 2023: “The First Minister is never off duty, particularly in this day and age. There is virtually no privacy. Even ordinary stuff that most people take for granted, like going for a coffee with friends or for a walk on your own becomes very difficult.”
Her resignation, like that of New Zealand’s Jacinda Ahern has reignited debates about wellbeing at work: how are professionals ‘expected’ to act, and what conflicts can arise when their emotions are suppressed over time or only certain emotions are allowed to be displayed? To better understand this, together with a team of researchers from Loughborough University, where the project is funded by the British Academy, I analysed 23,769 public tweets from ten European Space Agency astronauts. We found that astronauts play different “roles” to meet the expectations of their audiences on Twitter. There are different scripts shaping how they present themselves emotionally: the overawed admirer; brave adventure; pragmatic scientist; or loving family member.
The overawed admirer
Astronauts who follow this script, present themselves primarily as admirers of nature, the planet and the universe. They often express awe, fascination, amazement and gratitude.
The brave adventurer
Astronauts who follow this script present themselves as courageous explorers and adventurers who are willing to take risks for the progress of humanity.
The pragmatic scientist
Astronauts who follow this script present themselves as pragmatic and technophile scientists. Emotions are rationalised away.
Today marks 100 days until the earliest targeted launch date for #Crew3. I’m often asked if I’m nervous or excited about my flight to the @Space_Station, but you can’t be nervous or excited all the time. Mainly, we are focused & ready to go to #space ???????????????? https://t.co/1QNNZyPuso pic.twitter.com/omRdZSGOTg— Matthias Maurer (@astro_matthias) July 23, 2021
The loving family member
This script has several components portraying a sense of approachability and normality: on the one hand the astronauts present themselves as family members; on the other hand, the crew is presented as a kind of surrogate family.
Each script expresses different emotions. It is striking how each of the first three reflects the different social expectations and perceptions of astronauts – as heroes, scientists and philosophers. In contrast, the script of The Loving Family Member conveys normality, which invites better understanding of the extent to which the astronauts consciously use this script as a counterbalance to the others.
The research results support the assumption that emotions are expressed by astronauts in order to conform to social expectations. But these are in tension with each other. For example, there is a discrepancy between the excessive display of emotions in the script the overawed admirer and the more factual, unemotional display when the astronauts follow the script the pragmatic scientist. The risk-taking, heroic portrayal in the script the brave adventurer also seems to conflict with the script of the loving family member.
What do these insights imply for research on workplace wellbeing?
The use of scripts to express emotions in public is not unique to astronauts and there is comprehensive research on ‘role performance’ and ‘impression management’. What needs to be better understood, however, is how emotional conflicts caused by the presence of conflicting scripts in the workplace play out in the daily lives of workers like doctors, politicians, and professional athletes and how this affects their performance. Further exploration of how they deal with the professional expectations of how they ‘should’ be feeling at work, and how this relates to their actual reality, is also needed. The current debate about wellbeing at work should consider the way the selection and implementation of scripts to express emotions primarily depends on social validation and conformity with social expectations. This requirement for conformity is problematic for several reasons.
First, individuals may feel pressure to suppress their authentic feelings and present a false façade in order to gain social acceptance. This can lead to feelings of disconnection and emotional distress as individuals feel that they are unable to express their authentic self in the workplace or that their feelings are not being heard or validated.
Secondly, conforming to social expectations can limit an individual’s ability to express their full range of emotions, as certain emotions may be seen as unacceptable or inappropriate by society, their organisation or their team. This can lead to emotional suppression and have a negative impact on wellbeing and mental health, as individuals may find it difficult to process and manage their emotions in a healthy way.
Thirdly, when social recognition is the main motivation for expressing emotions, individuals may not develop the necessary skills to effectively regulate and manage their emotions. This can lead to difficulties in interpersonal relationships and make it difficult to cope with stressful or emotionally loaded situations.
It is becoming apparent that the concept of scripts can meaningfully inform the current debate around wellbeing and mental health at work. Subjective wellbeing is commonly measured through self-report questionnaires in which individuals are asked to rate their own happiness, life satisfaction and general wellbeing. While these are informative and valuable, such scales and surveys do little to aid the understanding of how people interpret and respond to the demands and expectations of their work environment. There is a strong argument to include more sociological concepts in thinking about wellbeing in the workplace, and recognise that individual wellbeing is also influenced by social and cultural factors that are beyond the control of the individual.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.