Skip to main content
Fireman sitting in a truck looking tired

Doing your own job can be stressful enough, but what happens when you're asked to take on work usually undertaken by another professional group? In a brand new publication, Catherine Needham, Professor of Public Policy and Public Management, considers role-extending and emotional labour in public services.

Role extending in public services

As part of the ‘Make Every Contact Count’ agenda in public health, it’s become common to encourage the ‘opportunistic delivery’ of public health interventions. GPs are being asked to encourage patients to stop using diesel cars. Hairdressers and bar workers are being trained to spot loneliness. Underpinning this role extension is an assumption that can be expressed as, "While you’re there, can you just...?" assuming that it is a cost-free add-on. This is called role-extending.

The Fire Service have been at the forefront of role extension as their core business of putting fires out has reduced.  Firefighters are now using existing fire safety checks in people’s homes to ask questions about debt management, diet and mental health. The high levels of public trust in the fire service are seen to make it particularly well suited to extending roles. Our study, The Emotional Labour of Role-Extending in Public Services, looked at the emotional labour of this role extension. We found that the home visits were emotionally taxing for the firefighters, who expressed discomfort and embarrassment in asking people about broader public health topics; these challenge the expected display rules of their job (the hero); invoke non-fire related issues, leading to a lack of role preparedness; and create emotional dissonance by offering little closure when compared to emergency work (problems cannot be ‘fixed’). Far from being ‘cost-free’, role extending can increase the negative toll of emotional labour and requires appropriate training and support.

 You can read more on this in our article: ‘While you’re there, can you just … ’ The emotional labour of role extending in public services, Public Money & Management, Catherine Needham, Elizabeth Griffiths & Catherine Mangan (2021).