Navigating emotionally demanding work: a narrative study of HR practitioners' experiences

  • Elizabeth Rivers

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


That the human resources (HR) role is beset with tensions and ambiguities is well established, but little is known about how HR practitioners are affected emotionally by their work. This thesis addresses this lack of knowledge by exploring how HR practitioners experience and navigate emotions in their working lives. It shows that HR practitioners are emotional human beings who struggle with the tensions of working in a professionalised managerialist culture which requires them to give the appearance of acting in unemotional ways, while experiencing deep emotions around their work.

The study is located in a subjectivist ontological and interpretivist epistemological position and is informed both theoretically and methodologically by a narrative perspective/paradigm. This contrasts with research into emotions in organisations that is dominated by an objectivist and functionalist perspective of rationalisation and control. This recognises that the personal experience of emotion cannot be detached from the social world, nor studied as such. Data gathering involved participant-led photo-elicitation methods in in-depth unstructured interviews. Narrative interpretation required development and refining of an approach that uses mimesis and diegesis that facilitates deep insights into the experiences of emotions in day-to-day working lives. This shows that HR practitioners deeply experience emotions in their work that they try to conceal.

The study’s first contribution lies in proposing a theory of the emotionally saturated nature of HR work. HR work is emotionally saturated because of the irreconcilable tensions and struggles experienced by HR practitioners while doing work that is ostensibly unemotional but deeply experienced. The second contribution of this thesis is the development/refinement of an innovative approach to narrative interpretation using mimesis and diegesis. Mimesis refers to the content of participants’ narratives, diegesis to how participants narrated/retold their experiences. The first involves translation of the narratives; the second explores how they are performed and how the researcher experiences participants’ narratives with them. These together facilitate a deeper and more nuanced understanding of emotion and offer a lens through which to view interviews as emotion-rich narratives.
Date of Award16 Sept 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorNancy Harding (Supervisor), Ann Cunliffe (Supervisor) & Nina Hansen (Supervisor)


  • Emotions
  • HR work
  • HR practitioners
  • Narrative
  • Photo-elicitation

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