An attribution theory perspective on emotional labour in nurse-patient encounters: A nested cross-sectional study in paediatric settings

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Aims: To understand the role of patients' attributions under the attribution theory framework (locus, controllability, stability) in nurses' performance of surface or deep acting, as they unfold in interactions with different patients. Background: Regulation of emotions at work, or emotional labour, has been conceptualized in terms of two main strategies: surface acting and deep acting. Most prior research tested for between-subject variation in the search for the factors evoking these strategies in nurses, assuming them to be trait-like characteristics. Only scant research has examined how nurses modify their emotional labour strategies in different patient-nurse encounters. Design: A nested cross-sectional design (patients within nurses). Methods: Data were collected during 2011-2012 through validated questionnaires from the nursing staff (N = 41) of two paediatric hospital wards and their randomly selected patients (N = 239). Questionnaires were administered to nurses multiple times after encounters with different patients. Analyses were conducted using mixed effects models. Results: In accordance with attribution theory, different combinations of locus, controllability and stability attributions were related to the choice of surface or deep acting. Nurses' perceptions of patients' controllability were associated positively with surface acting and negatively with deep acting. Interaction terms of stability and locus and of controllability and stability, were distinctively associated with deep and surface acting. Conclusions: Findings innovatively introduce the attribution process as an explanatory perspective to nurses' emotional labour and highlight its situational nature, providing a potential tool for emotional labour strategy prediction. Raising nurses' awareness of how they perceive patients may increase control of the strategies employed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1123-1134
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Advanced Nursing
Issue number5
StatePublished - 1 May 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.


  • Attribution theory
  • Cross-sectional survey
  • Deep acting
  • Emotional labour
  • Nurse-patient relations
  • Nurses
  • Nursing
  • Surface acting

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Nursing


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