26 SES 06 B, Emotions, Stress and Health in Times of Change
Recent rapid changes towards the enactment of neoliberal economic policies and the tightening of global competition have led public sector organisations (e.g. education and health care) to adopt new strategy-oriented managerial models. In seeking to achieve maximum profitability, organisations are asked to emphasize strong strategy-oriented control, accountability with a focus on centrally imposed standards, and new systems of monitoring and evaluation (Meyer, 2002; Moos, 2005). This organisational restructuring has forced leaders of public sector organisations to adopt new orientations towards their work. Leaders working in middle management have especially faced many new demands; they are expected to be flexible, innovative, ready for rapid changes and eager to implement strategic visions and regulations introduced by upper management. For leaders, this organisational restructuring has also meant enlarged roles, increased responsibility in decision-making and human management, and emotional stress (Brennan & Mac Ruairc, 2011; Parris, Vickers, & Wilkes, 2008).
These challenging conditions require leaders of middle management to practise active agency in order to understand the recent changes and new demands placed on them, and to negotiate their professional identities and orientations towards these changes. They are asked to clarify their professional roles and positions, determine for themselves as well as others who they are as leaders, strike a balance between their work and personal lives, and secure their own well-being and that of their personnel at work.
In theoretical terms, we conceptualise professional agency from a subject-centred socio-cultural perspective, turning our attention to the subjects’ construction of their identity and practising agency at work. The practice of professional agency is closely intertwined with leaders’ professional identities comprising professional and ethical commitments, emotions, goals, motivations, professional knowledge and competencies, work history and future expectations. We understand that practising agency means that leaders actively exert influence, make choices and take stances on their work and professional identities. This means that professional agency is manifested as identity negotiation processes and as practical and discursive influences on community and organisational issues (Eteläpelto, Vähäsantanen, Hökkä, & Paloniemi, 2012).
Although the research on middle management is vast, the issues about leaders’ perceptions of the changing landscape in their work and how they can cope with it is scarce. In particular, there is clearly a need to understand how leaders can negotiate their professional identities and practise agency in the present changing and challenging climate in public sector organisations. Thus, the aim of this paper is to examine how leaders working in middle management in educational and health care organisations practice their professional agency and renegotiate their identities in terms of their orientations, commitments, well-being and emotions. We specially focus on conflicting emotions and how these are intertwined with leaders’ identities.
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