Emotional Labor

Landon Packard ’17 gives first responders an outlet to share internal struggles faced on the job

Emotional Labor

Emotional Labor 1024 576 Kari Plog '11

“Those two are the reason I was able to get this thing done,” Landon Packard ’17 said of his faculty mentors, Joanna Gregson and Anna Leon-Guerrero. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it if they weren’t as forthcoming and helpful as they were.”

Amid the unthinkable on Feb. 5, 2012, the firefighter did his job.

Hours earlier, a man tangled up in a missing-person investigation and a child-custody battle blew up his home with his children inside. The homicide-suicide committed by Josh Powell remains one of the area’s most horrific crimes, forcing sleepy Graham, Washington, into the national spotlight.

Despite the emotional turmoil surrounding the devastation, that firefighter — himself a father of two sons — rose to the call of duty. He was tasked with removing the bodies of the two young boys, similar in age to his own, from the charred remains of the home.

“As we have all grown up in today’s society, we have all learned and been socialized to think that first responders are the ones who are supposed to rescue us when circumstances arise,” Landon Packard ’17 wrote in his research paper about the emotional labor experienced by first responders. “Yet, we haven’t been socialized to understand the guilt and heartbreak that comes with the job.”

That firefighter and 13 other interview subjects opened up to Packard about experiences that are often difficult for them to discuss, even with their loved ones. The collection of testimonials comprised the sociology capstone project that Packard says is personal.

“I have grown up around police officers and firefighters my whole life,” he said. “I wanted to relay stories, but mainly I wanted to relay them so people could grasp what these people go through every day because they don’t know how to show it.”

Packard examined each individual’s emotional labor — the process of managing emotions to satisfy the requirements of a job — by asking questions from four categories: background and demographics, becoming a first responder, emotions at work and emotion management.

“As we have all grown up in today’s society, we have all learned and been socialized to think that first responders are the ones who are supposed to rescue us when circumstances arise. Yet, we haven’t been socialized to understand the guilt and heartbreak that comes with the job.”
– Landon Packard ’17

“The interviews took place in a variety of places, from quiet living rooms to different coffee shops,” he wrote in his analysis. The interviews were between 35 and 60 minutes, depending on the comfort level of each participant. “Some participants were very upfront and willing to talk, whereas other participants were more reserved.”

Three themes were consistent across all interviews, Packard found. All of the subjects used gallows humor as a way of coping, all of them experienced deep sympathy when tragedy struck children and their families, and all of them experienced a culture of “learning as you go” to cope with emotional strain.

“First responders have other lives outside of work. I think people sometimes forget that,” Packard said. “When these people are home, they have other struggles they are dealing with. They have to carry their problems with them to work and take on others’ emotional struggles.”

The recent graduate said it was tough managing his own emotions through the process. Still, he said it helped him learn how to be a better interviewer, especially in the context of sociology research.

“When a person is in a vulnerable state, you learn how to just let them talk,” he said. “That was what I had to learn.”

First responders speak

Following much vocational reflection, Packard decided a career in first response or law enforcement would be an ideal post-graduate plan. He enrolled in a course about deviance in fall 2016, taught by Professor of Sociology Joanna Gregson. That student-faculty relationship developed into valuable mentorship for the budding sociologist.

Gregson said Packard’s capstone research elevated his aptitude for conducting interviews.

“Landon blossomed as a qualitative interviewer,” Gregson said. “As much as he hated the process of transcribing, he had a knack for drawing out his participants, making them feel comfortable, and eliciting heartfelt and sometimes painful stories.”

Gregson stressed that Packard’s growth is indicative of the learning-by-doing model that’s key in student-faculty research opportunities at PLU.

“I could tell stories all day long about challenges I’ve encountered while collecting data or the thrill of developing an analytical hunch, but until students experience it themselves, it is just that: stories,” she said. “When they immerse themselves in the project — from conception of the project to collection and analysis of data, and presentation of findings — they take ownership of their learning.”

As for Packard’s research itself, Gregson said it’s meaningful work that addresses a scarcely studied angle of emotional management for first responders.

“I have grown up around police officers and firefighters my whole life. I wanted to relay stories, but mainly I wanted to relay them so people could grasp what these people go through every day because they don’t know how to show it.”
– Landon Packard ’17

“While psychological research has examined how employees process and experience that stress, we knew little about how the culture of a workplace can shape those experiences,” she said. “While Landon’s research looked specifically at first responders, his findings have implications for other work environments where people confront emotionally challenging situations.”

It exemplifies what universities hope to see in student research, she added: “that it be personally meaningful, scientifically rigorous and with applications to the real world.”

Anna Leon-Guerrero, chair of sociology and another mentor for Packard, said she watched her student’s confidence grow throughout the research process.

She stressed that all students who conduct scholarly research face similar challenges that she and her colleagues have faced in academia.

“Faculty (members) support student learning and success by sharing our own passion for sociology,” Leon-Guerrero said. “Their capstone highs and lows are no different than what we’ve experienced in our own scholarship.”

Leon-Guerrero noted that one theme within Packard’s findings surprised her. “His subjects reported that they were never formally trained on how to manage their emotional labor,” she said. “Landon was critical about the lack of preparation and training for emotion management and questioned the long-term effects on first responders.”

Despite the difficult conversations he had with his interview subjects, Packard intends to pursue a career in emergency response. “It hasn’t turned me away from it at all,” he said. “If anything, it’s made me more interested.”

He said his calling has expanded as a result of his research — to not only help the people he’ll save in the future, but to help fellow first responders.

“It is now time for us to rescue the rescuers,” he said.

Kari Plog '11

Kari Plog '11

Kari returned to PLU in January 2016. She previously spent five years working in nearly every corner of the newsroom at The News Tribune in Tacoma. Her experience spanned from sports and news copy editing and pagination to local government, communities and breaking news reporting. In addition, Kari’s investigative stories earned her multiple awards, including New Journalist of the Year in June 2015. During her time at PLU, the 2011 graduate also contributed to many media and leadership organizations on campus, including The Mooring Mast and MediaLab. From 2015 until May 2018, Kari worked part time as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Puget Sound advising the student newspaper, The Trail.

All stories by:Kari Plog '11