Article i 'Tidsskrift for arbejdsliv' no. 4 2008, page 12-27.
When working with humans
Relations, feelings and the psychical working environment
Hans Jørgen Limborg og Hans Hvenegaard
Based on three case studies examining public service workplaces, this article focuses on how the specific character and conditions of human service work is influencing the way the psycho-social work environment is experienced and negotiated. First, the article describes a number of acknowledged conditions that characterise human service work, and does so via three categories: the condition of the client, the condition of the profession and the conditions of the tasks. These categories encompass the social and organizational structures and boundaries of human service work. Second, the three human service workplaces are examined as case studies. Based on experiences from the three workplaces collaborating with the VIPS project (www.BEST-project.dk) (Hasle et al. 2008; Sørensen et al. 2008), the article illustrates how the specific condition of human service work creates certain boundaries and frames for understanding the psycho-social work environment. On the basis of this analysis, the article considers, on the one hand, the relationship between the ability of the specific workplace to cope with the different human work conditions and, on the other, the ability of the workplace to handle the psycho-social work environment. This analysis draws on both quantitative and qualitative data collected from the case studies. The findings illustrate that even departments or teams within the same case or institution had a very different psycho-social work environment and thereby different conditions for improving the work environment. The article then outlines some of the key conditions that led to the large differences in what the workplaces prioritised and chose to change in practice.
Surprisingly, the article reveals that relations with the client were not prioritised in the work with the psycho-social work environment. Rather, the human service workers chose to focus primarily on organizational and internal structural problems. This however, does not imply that problems related to emotional labour are nonexistent. Rather, it challenges many of the traditional work environment tools and intervention methods, and calls for the development of new frames and conditions that will allow psycho-social work environment matters to be discussed and handled more effectively.
Finally, the article provides a number of principles that emphasise how work with psycho-social work environments must have the specific conditions and character of the workplace as a starting point. These principles are relevant regarding the support to leaders, advisers and other actors that work practically as well as strategically with the work environment, and can strengthen our ability to understand why some initiatives fail whilst others succeed.