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Original Article

An Analysis of Social Stressors with Clients, Emotional Labor Strategies, and Disengagement: A Diary Study on Social Work


Andrea Eggli ,

Bern University of Applied Sciences, Department of Social Work, Hallerstrasse 10, 3012 Bern, CH
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Diana Pereira,

Bern University of Applied Sciences, Department of Social Work, CH
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Achim Elfering

University of Bern, Institute of Psychology, CH
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The present seven-day diary study evaluated emotional labor strategies as mediators of the relationship between social stressors and disengagement on a short-term and intra-individual basis. The expectation was that surface acting and deep acting should precede higher disengagement. Before and after work, 63 social workers completed daily questions on social stressors with clients, emotional labor strategies, and disengagement. Multilevel analyses of up to 236 daily measurements revealed that more intense social stressors with clients predicted more intense surface acting, deep acting, and disengagement after work. Deep acting anteceded higher disengagement. An analysis of the indirect effects presented a significant positive indirect path from social stressors with clients via deep acting to disengagement. These findings bring to light how emotional labor strategies and disengaging work styles, despite being maladaptive long-term, may have a beneficial function for social workers on a day-to-day basis and intra-individual level.

How to Cite: Eggli, A., Pereira, D. and Elfering, A., 2022. An Analysis of Social Stressors with Clients, Emotional Labor Strategies, and Disengagement: A Diary Study on Social Work. Scandinavian Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 7(1), p.10. DOI:
  Published on 29 Jun 2022
 Accepted on 03 Jun 2022            Submitted on 01 Apr 2021


Social work is grounded on social interactions between various parties to successfully deliver social services. The majority of these daily interactions occur with clients (Dormann & Zapf, 2004), who oftentimes are vulnerable, mentally ill, aggressive, or involuntarily participating (Rooney & Mirick, 2018; Tzafrir et al., 2015). Thus, social workers are frequently exposed to social stressors, meaning characteristics, situations, episodes, or behaviors that are of a social nature and linked to psychological or physical strain (Dormann & Zapf, 2004). Until today, the empirical focus mainly lay on social stressors with supervisors and work-colleagues (Dormann & Zapf, 2004; Eggli et al., 2021; Kottwitz et al., 2021; Pereira & Elfering, 2014a, 2014b). The few studies that have focused on customer-related social stressors have done so in other professions (Dudenhöffer & Dormann, 2013, 2015; Kim et al., 2012; Song & Liu, 2010), but not in the social work sector. Dormann and Zapf (2004) argue the frequent occurrence of customer-related social stressors in the social work domain requires empirical attention. From a theoretical perspective, social stressors with clients (SSC) are bound to ignite long-term adverse health effects in social workers, as they threaten resource maintenance (Hobfoll, 1989), disrupt a positive self-image (Semmer et al., 2007) and make it hard to achieve lasting and significant social relations (for example, with clients; Baumeister & Leary, 1995). The present study thus aims to take a new perspective and investigate the intra-individual effects of SSC on various short-term coping processes and disengagement as work style.

Social Stressors with Clients and Disengagement

When investigating SSC in the social work domain, the inclusion of the burnout concept is vital. The reason being (a) burnout is an indication of employees struggling to effectively manage client interactions (Dormann & Zapf, 2004), and (b) the concept originated from research in social services and continues to prevail in this profession (Freudenberger, 1974).

Maslach (1978) defines burnout as a long-term psychological syndrome that can arise in employees of ‘people work’. The Oldenburg Burnout Inventory (Demerouti et al., 2003; Demerouti & Nachreiner, 1998) characterizes the syndrome by two main dimensions: emotional exhaustion (for example, depletion of energy and emotional resources) and depersonalization/disengagement (for example, detached and/or cynical attitudes towards the recipients of one’s services; Demerouti et al., 2001). Empirically, the prevailing finding is that emotional exhaustion is a long-term consequence of customer-related social stressors (Karatepe et al., 2009; Karatepe & Anumbose Nkendong, 2014; Kim et al., 2012; Ma et al., 2019; Song & Liu, 2010), while the effects on disengagement are less well-known (for example see Dormann & Zapf, 2004).

Disengagement is specifically defined as distancing oneself as well as endorsing a negative attitude towards work objectives, work content, and work in the general sense (for example, being uninterested, ‘checked-out’, not identifying with one’s job; Demerouti & Bakker, 2008). A meta-analysis by Dudenhöffer and Dormann (2015) found customer-related social stressors more strongly associated to disengagement than to emotional exhaustion. The strong association was justified as a stress-triggered coping mechanism, by which counterproductive rumination and adverse spill-over effects can be averted (Dudenhöffer & Dormann, 2015; Thanacoody et al., 2014). For instance, aligned to the Stress-as-Offense-to-Self (SOS) theory (Semmer et al., 2007), threats to one’s self-esteem during customer-related social stressor incidences can be prevented by adopting disengaging attitudes to devalue customers (Dudenhöffer & Dormann, 2015). Indeed, Kahn (1990) has postulated that employees consciously decide when to engage or disengage based on their appraisal of the situation with respect to the psychological conditions of meaningfulness, safety, and availability. In other words, If the appraisal of the situation and the available resources are unfavorable, then employees likely withdraw to protect themselves cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally (Kahn, 1990; Rastogi et al., 2018). Rastogi and colleagues (2018), in reference to the Conservation of Resource Model (Hobfoll, 1989), further argue that disengagement is how an individual strives to build and protect resources. These explanations (Dudenhöffer & Dormann, 2015; Kahn, 1990; Rastogi et al., 2018) deserve more empirical attention, as they suggest disengagement to be a short-term functional work style, used in response to specific customer-related social stressor incidences. Although disengagement is of a maladaptive nature, when used short-term it may be a momentarily beneficial work style in instances of social stressors (for example, to avoid getting emotionally hurt, maintain professionalism, perform with reduced effort; Gerdes & Segal, 2011; Green et al., 2006; Kim, 2016; O’Leary et al., 2013) and only manifests into burnout if used chronically and prolonged (Demerouti et al., 2002). A qualitative study by Somer and colleagues (2004) supports this notion, finding that emergency room social workers, facing traumatic social stressors, utilize short-term emotional disconnecting to protect their health and professionalism. Yet quantitively such short-term effects have rarely been verified. Dudenhöffer and Dormann (2013) suggest this empirical gap on short-term reactions to SSC limits our understanding of how stress truly develops. In addition, Thanacoody and colleagues (2014) call for diary methodologies to capture professionals’ disengaging behaviors more clearly. Accordingly, with a diary research design, our study aims to understand the within-person effects of SSC on social workers’ short-term disengagement.

Hypothesis 1: SSC will positively relate to disengagement on a daily basis.

Social Stressors with Clients and Emotional Labor

Every social stressor situation requires emotional labor, namely management of emotions according to organizational/professional display rules (Hochschild, 1983; Hülsheger & Schewe, 2011). So much so, that stressful customer encounters are often investigated by means of emotional labor frameworks (Dudenhöffer & Dormann, 2015; Grandey et al., 2004). Emotional labor is mainly conducted by means of two common strategies: surface acting and deep acting (Hochschild, 1983).

During surface acting, employees modify their emotional expressions without changing their felt emotions to create a desirable image during work interactions (Hochschild, 1983; Ozcelik, 2013). For example, when this strategy is applied, a social worker’s inner feelings, which in customer-related social stressor instances are likely to be negative, are not changed (Song & Liu, 2010). Based on Ozcelik’s (2013) premise, there are two motives for social workers to surface act during social stressor incidences: a) to uphold interpersonal acceptance and belongingness in intra-personal relationships (Baumeister & Leary, 1995) and b) to maintain and protect valued resources (for example, self-esteem; Semmer et al., 2007). In other words, when social workers realize that their genuinely felt emotions are not compatible with the expectations of the opposite party (for example, client) and/or the organizational display rules, then surface acting is a short-term emotional labor response to prevent threats to their need to belong and self-esteem (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Ozcelik, 2013; Semmer et al., 2007). In accordance with this theoretical assumption, prior studies have established that surface acting is particularly prevalent during social stressor situations (Adams & Buck, 2010; Hülsheger & Schewe, 2011; Man et al., 2017; Sliter et al., 2010). Yet these studies were cross-sectional investigations (Adams & Buck, 2010; Sliter et al., 2010) and a meta-analysis (Man et al., 2017), which were methodologically unable to detect short-term or intra-individual effects of customer-related social stressors on emotional labor strategies. The present study will thus redeem these past limitations.

Deep acting involves altering thoughts and feelings to establish a consonance between displayed and felt emotions, resulting in authentic emotional displays (Zapf et al., 2021a). An example would be a social worker transforming a negative feeling into a positive one to behave empathetically towards a rude client (Alabak et al., 2020). According to Hülsheger and Schewe (2011), deep acting is an antecedent-focused form of emotion regulation that aims to change a situation and/or the perception of it; certainly, social workers would strive to change social stressor situations and alter their perceptions towards them. These changes are achieved through the authentic regulatory efforts of deep acting (for example, feeling and displaying authentic empathy), which bring about positive responses and help build and maintain strong intrapersonal relations with clients. Thus, in incidences of social stressors, deep acting, with its authentic emotional displays, has the potential to calm the present conflict, thus automatically safeguarding the social worker’s self-esteem (Semmer et al., 2007) and need to belong (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). However, empirical findings on the relation between customer-related social stressors and deep acting are contradictory. Song and Liu (2010) revealed that while disproportionate customer expectations evoke deep acting in call-center employees, customer verbal aggression did not. In a meta-analysis, Man and colleagues (2017) found a negative correlation between customer misbehavior and deep acting; arguably because it is highly challenging to change negative emotions into positive emotions to align with institutional goals. With the present study we aim to resolve these inconsistencies.

Furthermore, we acknowledge that while deep acting and surface acting can cause strain (Grandey & Gabriel, 2015; Huang et al., 2015), the effort involved to perform these emotional labor strategies is expected to require even more energetic resources and regulatory efforts in sudden incidences of SSC. A study by Wong and colleagues (2017) indeed confirmed that the regulatory efforts needed for emotion management diminish well-being (such as, foster exhaustion and resource loss) after social interactions. The present study thus applied Diefendorff and colleagues’ (2005) scale, which includes items that focus on the effort needed during surface acting and deep acting, rather than the frequency of occurrences of these emotional labor strategies.

Also, we agree with Nesher Shoshan and Venz’s (2022) statement that to adequately capture emotional labor strategies in social stressor circumstances daily dynamics need to be considered, namely, the variations of surface acting, deep acting and social stressor incidences across days and within persons. Thus, within-subject analyses were conducted in the current study. Accordingly, the following hypotheses were defined:

Hypothesis 2: SSC will have a positive intraindividual effect on surface acting on a daily basis.

Hypothesis 3: SSC will have a positive intraindividual effect on deep acting on a daily basis.

Social Stressors with Clients, Emotional Labor, and Disengagement

Depending on the applied emotional labor strategy, different well-being and performance outcomes are to be expected (Hülsheger & Schewe, 2011). Thus, surface acting and deep acting might be determinants of SSC’s effects on disengagement in social workers (Hülsheger & Schewe, 2011).

A theoretical framework developed by Hülsheger and Schewe (2011) explains the mechanisms by which surface acting and deep acting may mediate the relation between SSC and disengagement. Accordingly, surface acting may be a mediator, as the application of the strategy (a) drains mental and energetic resources; (b) involves inauthentic emotional displays, which evoke less positive responses from clients than authentic displays (Grandey & Gabriel, 2015); and (c) impairs social workers’ emotional performance and thus disturbs the employee-client relationship (Hülsheger & Schewe, 2011). Consequently, the mechanisms evoked by surface acting cause emotional strain, and in an attempt to reduce this strain, the social worker may—on short notice— take up a functional disengaging work style as a means to invest less effort in social relationships (Lee et al., 2018). In the long term, disengagement potentially has detrimental health-related consequences for social workers. Various meta-analyses (i.e., Hülsheger & Schewe, 2011; Yin et al., 2019) have indeed found a positive relation between surface acting and depersonalization. Yet, while the mediating role of surface acting has long been verified for the customer-related social stressor and emotional exhaustion relationship (Sliter et al., 2010; Song & Liu, 2010), this has not been the case for the customer-related social stressor and disengagement relationship. The present study aims to rectify this research gap.

In contrast, deep acting is said to have a functional effect on depersonalization (Hülsheger & Schewe, 2011; Lee et al., 2018). According to Hülsheger and Schewe (2011), deep acting evokes favorable reactions from clients due to its authenticity and therefore strengthens the employee-client relationship. Due to these benefits, no strainful effects should be experienced (for example, resource loss) and thus no functional disengaging work style should be required. Zapf (2002) even suggested that deep acting stops employees from disengaging (cited in Lee et al., 2018). This corresponds with results from meta-analyses (Hülsheger & Schewe, 2011; Yin et al., 2019), finding no correlation between deep acting and disengagement. However, Alabak and colleagues (2020) argue that empirical investigations need to consider the two sub-categories of deep acting (such as, cognitive change and attentional deployment); only cognitive change has been found to result in beneficial effects, while positive reappraisal and attentional deployment evoked mental exhaustion (Alabak et al., 2020). In the past, scholars have warned deep acting is taxing and resource depleting (Grandey & Gabriel, 2015; Hochschild, 1983; Huang et al., 2015). According to the COR theory (Hobfoll, 1989), the short-term threat and loss of resources would strain social workers and thus evoke a momentary functional disengaging work style (Dudenhöffer & Dormann, 2015; Hülsheger & Schewe, 2011). Taking on this multifaceted perspective of deep acting, the present study aims to uncover deep acting’s within-person, short-term, mediating role in SSC and disengagement.

Hypothesis 4: Deep acting positively mediates the link between SSC and disengagement on a daily basis.

Hypothesis 5: Surface acting positively mediates the link between SSC and disengagement on a daily basis.

Materials and Methods

Participants and Design

Recruitment of participants occurred via personal advertisements (convenience sampling) in journals and websites of Swiss social work unions and universities. Due to convenience sampling, authors were unable to derive a participation rate. All participants provided informed consent, and the study design was approved by the Ethics Commission of the University of Bern, Switzerland (Reference Nr. 2010-08-00003).

Data were collected through online questionnaires over a three-month period (May–July 2019). The inclusion criteria were that the participants had to be employed social workers in Switzerland, with a minimum workload of 40% per week. Sixty-three participants agreed to take part in the study, of which 51 (81%) were female and 12 (19%) male. The average age of the participants was 39.67 years old, with an age range of 23–60 years (SD = 10.15). Participants were employed in various social work fields, such as educational and psychiatric, disability services, state social services, and immigration assistance. The multilevel structure included daily data (Level 1) nested within participants (Level 2). The sample size on Level 1 ranged from 153 to 236 and on Level 2 between 60 and 63. For most analyses, N on Level 1 was approximately 60, surpassing the recommended minimum sample size of 50 (Maas & Hox, 2005). Owing to missing values (such as, autocorrelations or participants did not work on a particular day), the size on Level 1 and Level 2 varies for different variables. No dropouts were reported.



Prior to collecting diary measures, participants completed a general questionnaire that collected demographic and occupational data (Level 2 variables). It was mandatory to complete this questionnaire before entering the diary study.

Diary Study

To assess Level 1 variables, two self-reported questionnaires were applied: a morning self-report questionnaire assessed daily hassles at home, while an evening self-report questionnaire measured daily social stressors, emotional labor strategies, and disengagement. Both questionnaires were completed daily; the morning questionnaire before starting work and the evening questionnaire after work (Supplementary File 1: Figure 1. Diary study design).

Social Stressors with Clients

The Frese and Zapf (1987) scale on social stressors at work was adapted to gain four items to measure interpersonal tensions with clients after workdays. The introduction to all questionnaire items was ‘To what extent do the following statements apply to you? Today…’. Questionnaire items were ‘I had to pay for the mistakes of my clients’, ‘When a mistake occurred, the client always pushed it on me – never on himself’, ‘Today, I had a conflict with some of my clients’, and ‘Today, I got reprimanded by clients even for little things’. The items were scored on a 5-point scale, ranging from 1 (‘not at all’) to 5 (‘absolutely’). Cronbach’s alpha was 0.89, with a mean social stressor scale score of 1.20 (SD = 0.58).

Emotional Regulation Strategies

The deep and surface acting items, originally developed by Diefendorff et al. (2005), were translated into German and adapted for the diary data collection. Both scales consisted of six items, which were rated on a 5-point Likert scale, ranging from 1 (‘strongly disagree’) to 5 (‘strongly agree’). The introduction of the questionnaire items was ‘To what extent do the following statements apply to your working day today?’ Example items of the surface acting scale are ‘Today, I put on an act in order to deal with clients in an appropriate way’, ‘Today, I faked a good mood when interacting with clients’, ‘Today, I put on a “show” or performance when interacting with clients’, and ‘Today, I just pretended to have the emotions I need to display for my job’. Examples of the deep acting scale are ‘Today, I tried to actually experience the emotions that I must show to customers’, ‘Today, I made an effort to actually feel the emotions that I need to display towards clients’, ‘Today, I worked hard to feel the emotions that I need to show to clients’, and ‘Today, I worked at developing the feelings inside of me that I need to show to customers’. Cronbach’s alpha for the surface acting scale was 0.94, with a mean score of 1.43 (SD = 0.76). The deep acting scale had a Cronbach’s alpha of 0.85, while the mean score was 2.99 (SD = 1.05).


Disengagement was measured using the German Disengagement subscale of the Oldenburg Burnout Inventory (OLBI; Demerouti et al., 2001). Disengagement is a component of burnout and has previously been applied as a measurement of a coping mechanism (e.g., Thanacoody et al., 2014). This eight-item subscale asks for self-distancing from the object, content of one’s work, negative and cynical attitudes, as well as behaviors towards one’s work (Demerouti et al., 2001). The answer was captured on a 5-point Likert scale, ranging from 1 (‘totally disagree’) to 5 (‘totally agree’). Four items were worded positively and four negatively. Example items are ‘Today, I talked about my work in a derogatory way’ and ‘Today, I got more and more engaged in my work’ (reversed item). Cronbach’s alpha for the disengagement subscale was 0.70, with a mean score of 3.49 (SD = 0.99).

Control Variables

Because emotional labor strategies and disengagement differ depending on gender and age (Purvanova & Muros, 2010; Walsh & Bartikowski, 2013), these Level 2 variables were controlled for.

Also controlled for was the variable of daily hassles at home, as it is associated with psychological distress (Serido et al., 2004) and could have blurred the effects of social stressors on disengagement. Daily hassles were assessed with a single item: ‘Did the following people help you yesterday with problems or concerns?’ Five answer categories (‘spouse’, ‘children’, ‘a friend’, ‘family member’, or ‘other person’) were provided. Because daily hassles at home were always measured the following morning, for our analyses, we calculated the autocorrelations of the day before. Hence, in our analyses, daily hassles at home on the previous day was used as a control variable.

One also needs to acknowledge that depending on what the participant experienced on each working day his/her scores may vary drastically on a daily basis. Due to this, the autocorrelation of one day was controlled for in this study by including the dependent as well as the mediator variable for the previous day. This way, all influence of the previous day on the dependent variable is controlled for in the independent variable.

Procedure and Analysis

Participant compensation occurred by means of a raffle to win vouchers. Willing participants received research information and a link to the general online questionnaire by mail. First, participants completed the general questionnaire and then proceeded with the diary data collection. During a seven-day timeframe (Monday through Sunday), participants completed a self-report questionnaire every morning and evening. Only on work-free days were participants asked not to complete the surveys.

Calculation of multilevel regression analyses with the R Project for Statistical Computing (The R Foundation, 2020) included the daily data (Level 1) that were nested within participants (Level 2). The present study focused on the daily within-person relationships between social stressors, emotional labor strategies (for example, surface acting and deep acting), and disengagement. The Level 1 predictor variable (such as, social stressors) and mediators (such as, surface acting and deep acting) were group-mean centered. This allowed for the variable’s effect to be interpreted in relation to the individual’s own mean across all days. The age variable (Level 2) was grand-mean centered. Gender, as well as the outcome variable (for example, disengagement), remained uncentered. Depending on missing values, variations of Level 1 sample sizes for different variables occurred; it was thus beneficial in the sense that multilevel analysis allowed for a varying number of observations (such as, missing data) (Pereira et al., 2013). Results reported the unstandardized regression coefficients.

For multilevel mediation testing, Selig and Preacher’s (2008) Monte Carlo method (MCM) was used, which assumes that ‘a’ and ‘b’ parameters have a normal sampling distribution. By using the parameter estimates and their associated asymptotic variances and covariances, one can simulate random draws from the joint distribution of ‘a’ and ‘b’ and calculate the outcome of these values. This procedure is then repeated 20,000 times so that the resulting distribution of ‘a’*’b’ values can be used to estimate a confidence interval around the observed value of ‘a’*’b’. The MCM applies to the current study, as it permits multilevel indirect effect analyses and parametric bootstrapping and produces more accurate results for small sample sizes (Tofighi & MacKinnon, 2016).


Table 1 presents the descriptive statistics and correlations among study measures. Before testing the hypotheses, a null model was adopted to estimate the proportion of variance in disengagement accounting for the day (Level 1) and person (Level 2) (Nezlek, 2001). The attained intraclass correlation (ICC) estimates of 0.27 for Level 2 and 0.73 for Level 1 variance indicate that 73% of the variance is within-person variance, meaning the use of multilevel modelling is validated (see Model 1 in Table 2) (Nezlek, 2001).

Table 1

Descriptive Statistics and Correlations for the Study Variables.

VARIABLE M SD N 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

1. Sexa 0.18 0.38 409 0.44*** 0.03 –0.02 –0.09 0.04 0.06

2. Age 39.67 10.15 409 0.44** –0.06 –0.15* –0.10 –0.00 0.11*

3. Disengagement 3.49 0.99 236 0.02 –0.13* 0.22*** 0.16** 0.58*** –0.06

4. Social stressors with clients 1.20 0.58 240 –0.04 –0.21** –0.05 0.45*** 0.23*** –0.05

5. Surface acting 1.43 0.76 237 –0.07 –0.13** 0.04 0.42** 0.16** 0.02

6. Deep acting 2.99 1.05 237 0.02 0.00 0.60** 0.02 0.06 –0.06

7. Daily hassles at homeb 0.16 0.37 332 0.10* 0.19** 0.05 0.11* 0.15** 0.03

Note: a 0 = female, 1 = male. b of the previous day.

* p < 0.05, ** p < 0.01, two-tailed.

Lower Triage = Between-person Correlations.

Upper Triage = Within-person Correlations.

Table 2

Fixed Effects Estimates and Standard Errors for the Predictor Models.





Intercept 3.48*** 0.09 3.60*** 0.10 3.61*** 0.10 3.57*** 0.10 3.59*** 0.09 3.61*** 0.10 3.04*** 0.12 1.38*** 0.08 1.13*** 0.06

Level 1

    Social stressors 0.74*** 0.11 0.46*** 0.11 0.67*** 0.13 0.65*** 0.13 0.61*** 0.09

    Deep acting 0.58*** 0.07 0.43*** 0.07

    Surface acting 0.43*** 0.11 0.13 0.13

    Daily hassles at homeb 0.08 0.16 0.00 0.17 0.21 0.15 0.15 0.14 0.05 0.16 –0.12 0.19 0.36** 0.13 0.15 0.11

    Disengagementb 0.16* 0.07 0.16* 0.08 0.11 0.07 0.14 0.07 0.14 0.08

    Deep actingb –0.05 0.07 –0.02 0.08

    Surface actingb 0.06 0.11 –0.19* 0.08

    Disengagement 0.32*** 0.06

    Social stressors b –0.22** 0.08

Level 2

    Sexa 0.20 0.24 0.17 0.25 0.14 0.25 0.16 0.24 0.19 0.24 0.25 0.30 –0.05 0.20 –0.02 0.15

    Age –0.00 0.01 –0.00 0.01 –0.00 0.01 –0.00 0.01 –0.00 0.01 –0.01 0.01 –0.00 0.01 –0.01 0.01

Note: N Level 1 = 153–236, N Level 2 = 60–63.

* p < 0.05, ** p < 0.01, *** p < 0.001, two-tailed.

a 0 = female, 1 = male.

b Of the previous day.

To test if social stressors with clients are negatively related to disengagement, we regressed this relation in four separate analyses. Each hypothesis was tested with a model: Model 1 was the null model, to which we then successively added predictors, namely social stressors with clients (Model 2), surface acting (Model 3), and deep acting (Model 4). Additionally, we analyzed whether social stressors with clients are positively linked to surface acting (Model 8) and deep acting (Model 7). In line with our assumptions, social stressors at work had a positive effect on disengagement (γ = 0.74, p < 0.001; see Model 2 in Table 2), surface acting (γ = 0.61, p < 0.001; see Model 8 in Table 2), and deep acting (γ = 0.65, p < 0.001; see Model 7 in Table 2). As anticipated, it was further found that deep acting (γ = 0.58, p < 0.001; see Model 4 in Table 2) as well as surface acting (γ = 0.43, p < 0.001; see Model 3 in Table 2) positively predicted disengagement. However, multilevel mediation regression analyses, including all involved variables, revealed that deep acting remained positively related to disengagement (γ = 0.43, p < 0.001; see Model 5 in Table 2), while surface acting did not (γ = 0.13, ns.; Model 6 in Table 2). Thus, all of our hypotheses were supported, except for Hypothesis 5 (Supplementary File 2: Figure 2. Emotional Labor Strategies mediating the Effect of Social Stressors on Disengagement).

By means of the MCM (Selig & Preacher, 2008), the multilevel mediation analyses were additionally conducted with 20,000 bootstrap samples. For the deep acting mediation model, the procedure obtained a 95% confidence interval with lower and upper limits of 0.22 and 0.55, respectively. The surface acting mediation model attained a 95% confidence interval lower limit of 0.15 and upper limit of 0.39. Because for both models the distribution of the estimated 95% confidence interval does not include zero, the indirect paths can be considered significant (Selig & Preacher, 2008). These findings support Hypothesis 4 but not Hypothesis 5.

Further Analysis

Additionally, two reverse causation models, with directionality opposed to our hypotheses, were conducted to ensure that the effect of social stressors with clients on disengagement (Hypothesis 1) is not attributed to reverse causation. The reverse causation hypothesis was that disengagement of social workers would evoke or enlarge social stressors with clients.

In accordance with the reverse causation hypothesis, disengagement had a within-direct effect on social stressors with clients (γ = 0.35, p < 0.001, see Model 9, Table 2).


The present diary study aimed to investigate the within-person daily effects of SSC on disengagement among social workers. Additionally, the goal was to understand if surface acting and deep acting positively mediated the effects of SSC on disengagement on a daily basis. Multilevel regression analyses revealed that SSC had an intra-personal, short-term enhancing effect on disengagement. A test of reversed causation further showed that disengagement predicted SSC on a day-to-day basis. As expected, deep acting held a short-term positive mediating role in the relation of SSC and disengagement, while surface acting did not.

Previous studies have limited themselves conceptually and methodologically: customer-related social stressors were often only linked to the burnout dimension of emotional exhaustion (Karatepe et al., 2009; Karatepe & Anumbose Nkendong, 2014; Kim et al., 2012; Ma et al., 2019; Song & Liu, 2010), and the applied methodological approaches did not allow inferences with regard to intrapersonal or short-term effects. The present finding is therefore one of the first showing that SSC positively predicts a maladaptive form of disengagement on a day-to-day and intraindividual level. Dudenhöffer and Dormann (2015), in their meta-analysis, similarly found a strong association between customer-related social stressors and disengagement, describing it as a stress-triggered mechanism. In essence, social workers momentarily take on a functional disengaging work style as a means of coping with the adverse effects of SSC incidences (e.g., rumination, threats to self-esteem and social relations; Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Dudenhöffer & Dormann, 2015; Semmer et al., 2007; Somer et al., 2004). Short-term and intra-individually, disengagement provides an effective functional work mode; while its long-term use is dysfunctional and nurtures burnout (Demerouti et al., 2002).

In line with our expectations, our study revealed that SSC had a positive intraindividual effect on surface acting (Hypothesis 2) as well as deep acting (Hypothesis 3) on a daily basis. This relation confirmed the expectation that, during SSC instances, social workers use emotional regulation strategies to uphold professionalism and fulfil their job role (Brotheridge & Grandey, 2002; Hobfoll, 1989). Cross-sectional and meta-analytic investigations from other occupational domains have already established that SSC are positively related to surface acting (Adams & Buck, 2010; Hülsheger & Schewe, 2011; Man et al., 2017; Sliter et al., 2010); yet, due to methodological designs, no inferences could be made regarding short-term or intraindividual effects. Our study redeemed this prior empirical neglect. In regard to SSC effects on deep acting, cross-sectional and meta-analyses yielded contradictory results of positive associations and no significant findings (Song & Liu, 2010), as well as negative correlations (Man et al., 2017). The inconsistencies in results may be because the studies’ research designs identified long-term and interindividual inferences but were not sensitive enough to comprehend the daily within-subject fluctuations. With a diary design, we identified daily changes of surface acting and deep acting in response to SSC, thus providing understanding and empirical clarification.

Contradictory to Hypothesis 5, results revealed that surface acting did not positively mediate the link between SSC and disengagement. This finding is surprising; according to Hülsheger and Schewe’s (2011) theoretical framework, if surface acting is used post-SSC then adverse emotional strains and overloads are to be expected (for example, loss of resources, negative responses of clients due to inauthentic emotional displays of social workers, disruption of client-worker relationship; Grandey & Gabriel, 2015), due to which social workers might momentarily go into a functional disengaging work style to recreate balance (Lee et al., 2018). Meta-analyses have even found a positive link between surface acting and depersonalization (Yin et al., 2019); yet only one meta-analysis included diary designs (Hülsheger & Schewe, 2011). We postulate that short-term surface acting may not be a second-best strategy but may actually be a helpful coping mechanism in high-strain professions. For instance, studies conducted in the police force have found surface acting to be beneficial, as the strategy a) allows distance from the human tragedies encountered in the short-term, while b) also giving more versatility and less investment when selecting emotional displays, thus letting officers switch emotions more rapidly as demanded by circumstances (Schaible & Gecas, 2010; Schaible & Six, 2016). According to Gountas and colleagues (2014), nurses benefit from surface acting: short-term this strategy indicates concern and effort towards the patient, while at the same time it protects the nurse by means of emotional detachment from the harmful effects of emotion work. Schaible and Six (2016) further explain that it is an important difference whether specific emotions (e.g., empathy) are demanded by circumstances or by the organization in which the individuals are employed. Specifically, during challenging circumstances (for example, SSC), feigning certain emotions (such as, apologies, understanding) and suppressing negative emotions (such as, anger) allows professionals who have a helping mandate (for example, police, social work) to achieve the objectives of their duties (Schaible & Six, 2016); hence, surface acting is beneficial. Similary, Lennard and colleagues (2019) argue that, depending on the context and changes in the affective states of employees, short-term surface acting may actually benefit well-being. The insignificant mediation findings are thus explained; because surface acting already represents a form of detachment in response to SSC, the mediating path between surface acting and disengagement becomes redundant.

In agreement with our expectations, it was found that efforts to perform deep acting mediated the intra-personal effects of SSC on disengagement on a daily basis. This contradicts the majority of existing theoretical and empirical propositions, finding deep acting to be a resource building and health-promoting strategy (Grandey & Gabriel, 2015; Huang et al., 2015). Prior meta-analyses have even found deep acting negatively related to disengaging behaviors (Hülsheger & Schewe, 2011; Yin et al., 2019). Yet, because these prior investigations relied on cross-sectional analysis, the daily fluctuations of these emotional labor strategies and their effects were unable to be pinpointed. Such short-term intra-personal analyses are particularly important, as employees may apply various sub-strategies of deep acting in the course of one working day, depending on the specific circumstance being encountered. According to Alabak and colleauges (2020), not all sub-strategies (for example, cognitive change and attentional deployment) are advantageous, some induced cognitive exhaustion. It becomes evident that deep acting is a self-regulation strategy that offsets resource gains long-term (such as, build strong social relationships by means of authenticity; Brotheridge & Lee, 2002; Grandey & Gabriel, 2015); short-term, the strategy, as well as the efforts involved, drains emotional resources (Grandey & Gabriel, 2015; Huang et al., 2015). Consequently, the momentary high-effort regulation process of deep acting evokes a short-term functional disengaging work style in social workers (Dudenhöffer & Dormann, 2015; Hülsheger & Schewe, 2011) to achieve a state of under-involvement during a circumstance of over-involvement (Dollard et al., 2003; Dormann & Zapf, 2004). Thus, the present study postulates that the negative consequences of deep acting apply in short-term and intra-personal daily regulation processes, while from an interpersonal and long-term perspective well-adjusted outcomes are to be expected.

A further explanation for the significant mediation model is that Diefendorff and colleagues’ (2005) deep acting scale captured the effort to deep act rather than the frequency of occurrences of deep acting. Especially in high social stressor instances, more regulatory effort, as well as resources, are required to perform deep acting. This momentary regulatory effort needed during deep acting is a form of over-involvement, which consumes and depletes regulatory resources and may result in adverse health effects (e.g., exhaustion) (Wong et al., 2017; Zapf et al., 2021b). Hence, in response to this over-involvement, social workers disengage short-term to achieve an under-involvement and to reattain equilibrium (Dollard et al., 2003; Dormann & Zapf, 2004). Again, these negative effects of deep acting only emerge in the short-term and intra-individually; long-term, the effort of deep acting pays off, as it generates authentic emotions and thus enables resource gains (Brotheridge & Lee, 2002; Grandey & Gabriel, 2015), goal attainment, and positive social interactions (Wong et al., 2017; Zapf et al., 2021b). The above argument is further strengthened by the fact that the mean value of SSC in this study was very low; meaning, because fewer and less intense SSC incidences were experienced, it can be assumed that social workers also required less regulatory effort to deep act. As a result, social workers might have been more likely to deep act rather than simply surface act. This would be another explanation for the significant deep acting mediation model.

Study Advantages and Limitations

A significant strength of the present study is the applied diary design, which is sensitive enough to detect day-to-day and intra-individual variations of emotional labor strategies and disengagement, as well as their distinctive effects in response to SSC (Ohly et al., 2010). Thanacoody and colleagues’ (2014) request for diary methodologies to gain a more comprehensive understanding of employees’ disengaging behaviors has thus been fulfilled.

However, this study also holds limitations. Because the data was collected with self-report questionnaires, there is a risk for response biases as well as a vulnerability for shared method variance (Donaldson & Grant-Vallone, 2002). It is uncertain which psychological constructs are most affected by such biases and variances (Donaldson & Grant-Vallone, 2002). The present study broadened the knowledge base on stress-triggered responses to SSC; yet, to avoid the chance of response biases and shared-method variance altogether, future research is advised to use self-report assessments in combination with objective methods (such as, physiological measurements of stress, like heart rate). A second limitation of this study is that a small sample size was applied and may thus stand at risk for power and population bias (Pereira & Elfering, 2014b). It could be that due to the small sample an under-estimation of results occurred and thus contributed to the non-significant mediation model between SSC, surface acting, and disengagement. An underestimation of results could also have occurred due to the ‘typically known’ range restriction of the SSC scale (Gerhardt et al., 2021).

Practical and Empirical Implications

In social work practice, the present findings are crucial, as they reveal the short-term responses of social workers to SSC, which might be beneficial momentarily, but if used chronically may in the long run determine further adverse health consequences (such as, burnout). The transference of these short-term mechanisms into potential long-term consequences should be acknowledged by social work institutions as well as supervisors and stopped at its root. In order to do so, practical training sessions are needed within the education curriculum as well as in corporate health management of social work organizations so that the handling of SSC can be practiced; this way, one can become familiar with short-term functional disengaging work styles and understand how to cope strategically via emotional labor strategies.

What remains an open question is the present pos hoc result of disengagement predicting SSC on a daily basis. Muntz and colleagues (2019) argued that while work circumstances (such as, social stressors) can be the source of strain reactions (for example, disengagement), it is also possible that poor work incidences (such as, SSC) may be dependent on the employee’s mindset and attitude (for example, depersonalization). Furthermore, Maslach (1978) has mentioned that behavioral changes towards clients, elicited by high levels of disengagement, may greatly raise the likelihood of interpersonal conflicts. Thus, the reciprocal effects between SSC and disengagement may potentially result in a vicious cycle, causing an escalation of SCC and disengagement over time (Muntz et al., 2019). Future studies are thus strongly advised to reconsider the reversed causation of our model.


The adverse health outcomes of customer-related social stressors have been verified by various studies (Dudenhöffer & Dormann, 2013, 2015; Kim et al., 2012; Song & Liu, 2010), but not how professionals respond intra-individually and in the short term to such SSC incidences. Our study added to the current knowledge foundation by investigating how SSC evoke coping responses in the form of emotional labor strategies and may momentarily lead to functional disengaging work styles. Despite surface acting and disengagement empirically considered to be maladaptive (Demerouti et al., 2002; Lee et al., 2018), the present analyses showed that on an intra-individual and day-to-day basis, benefits may nonetheless emerge. The empirically known benefits of deep acting stand in question if assessed in the short term and within-subject context. We contributed to the present knowledge base by showing how, in the social work context, SSC are unique triggers to certain (maladaptive) stress-responses and functional work styles that assist the daily balancing of over- and under-involvement with clients.

Additional Files

The additional files for this article can be found as follows:

Supplementary file 1

Figure 1. Diary Study Design. DOI:

Supplementary file 2

Figure 2. Emotional Labor Strategies Mediating the Effect of Social Stressors on Disengagement. DOI:

Competing Interests

The authors have no competing interests to declare.

Author Contributions

All listed authors have given permission to be listed on the submitted paper and satisfy the authorship guidelines of the journal.


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