What does it mean to be “professional” in your career? One of my now-graduated PhD students, SJ Lennie, has investigated the expectations that police officers in the UK face when carrying out their duties. She found that there is a very strong pressure on officers to ‘switch off’ their emotions. The public don’t want police officers going to pieces when dealing with demanding situations but there also seems to be an expectation from colleagues and superiors that officers won’t show emotion.
As part of their day-to-day work, officers are exposed to traumatic events and a recent piece of research found they suffer from disturbingly high levels of PTSD. Many officers use emotional suppression and depersonalisation as coping strategies to get through traumatic experiences. The problem comes when they find themselves in an environment that doesn’t provide emotional support after the events: the strategies that serve well in the short term tend to lead to long term problems. SJ found, in her work, that officers who felt unable to talk about the distress they were experiencing were more likely to suffer from burnout. Essentially, they feel they have to act like robots.
Is that what professionalism means? To reduce human emotion to the point where a robot would do it better? I read a book recently which argued it is kindness and empathy that is at the root of our success as a species. If we could bring this emphasis back into our definitions of professionalism and provide people with the support we all need to get through tough times, imagine the kind of a world could we build!