Do you work in a field where you’re expected to give customers service with a smile, no matter how lousy you may feel inside or how irritating they are? Or, do you work in an environment where you’re supposed to squelch your own feelings and kowtow to the wishes of clients, patients or difficult supervisors? If so, you’re personally familiar with emotional labor, though you may have never known what to call it.
Originally coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book “The Managed Heart,” the term emotional labor refers to paid work that involves managing — and sometimes suppressing — your own feelings to fulfill the emotional requirements of a given job. Emotional labor is particularly common in service or caring occupations (think: flight attendants, waiters, teachers, child care workers, social workers, nurses, nursing home attendants, customer service representatives or real estate agents).
Interestingly, many teacher-coaches get a double dose. When researchers had 403 high school teacher-coaches from 47 states complete questionnaires about their use of emotional labor in both occupational roles, participants indicated that expressions of friendliness and cheerfulness were more required in teaching than coaching. On the other hand, negative emotional displays, such as expressing upset, disappointment, anger and frustration, were perceived to be more required in coaching, according to a study in the October 2018 issue of Psychological Reports.
In her new book “Fed Up ,” journalist Gemma Hartley expands the definition of emotional labor to include “the unpaid, often unnoticed labor that goes into keeping those around you comfortable and happy.” But some organizational psychologists disagree. Among the differences between emotional labor and emotional regulation: Emotional labor is work-role specific, and it involves managing emotions during interactions to achieve professional goals and conform to work-role requirements, as they’re often conveyed during job training, explains Alicia Grandey, an industrial-organizational psychologist and professor of industrial-organizational psychology at Penn State University.
Whether they realize it or not, when performing emotional labor, employees tend to rely on the concept of deep acting , modifying their feelings by using cognitive strategies to change the way they feel, Grandey explains. These strategies may include refocusing their attention or reappraising a situation, giving themselves pep talks or adopting a difficult person’s perspective to genuinely show concern. Alternatively, or in addition, employees might use surface acting, a type of behavior modulation such as faking a smile or a good mood when they’re tired or hiding their irritation with a difficult client or colleague, in reaction to a situation.
The Hidden Toll of Emotional Labor
“When it’s done repeatedly all day long, emotional labor like physical labor is effortful and fatiguing and (it) can be costly in terms of performance errors and job burnout,” Grandey says. Her latest research suggests that the more people fake good cheer at work, the more they “tend to consume alcohol, perhaps because they are tired of regulating their behavior.”
What’s more, a study in a 2017 issue of the International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health found that kindergarten teachers who engaged in lots of surface acting in the previous month had high concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol in samples of their hair that were analyzed. Besides being tiring and stressful, emotional labor has been identified as a risk factor for burnout, depression and other forms of psychological distress, according to research in a 2018 issue of the Yonsei Medical Journal.
“When employees have to fake emotions they don’t feel, they can experience cognitive dissonance (a state of conflicting attitudes or beliefs that produces mental discomfort),” notes Deanna Geddes, associate dean of graduate programs and professor of human resources management at Temple University’s Fox School of Business in Philadelphia. “As a result, they tend to experience more job burnout, lower feelings of job accomplishment and less job involvement.”
Managing Emotional Labor
The first step is to recognize that emotional labor exists — then to tune into when it’s affecting you and draining your energy. Keep in mind that “deep acting appears to be a less harmful way to perform emotional labor, since it takes some time and attention to step back and change one’s feelings rather than just faking it,” Grandey says. “Going to a back room for recovery breaks, and being able to ‘be real’ with co-workers also helps reduce the strain of surface acting with customers or patients.”
Similarly, cultivating authenticity — whether it’s within the work environment or in your own behavior — may serve as an antidote to the potentially harmful effects of emotional labor. In the work environment, it helps if managers give employees autonomy and support, perhaps allowing them the freedom to take a break when they need it or supporting them if a customer or patient is rude. This is important because the 2017 Mind the Workplace report from Mental Health America found that only 35 percent of the more than 17,000 employees surveyed felt they could rely on support from their supervisors and colleagues, a reality that contributes to higher levels of workplace stress.
In a study in an August 2018 issue of the journal Gerontologist, researchers examined home health aides’ perceptions of the emotional effects of their work and asked them what would help them better manage the stress of their work. High on their wish list were more communication, contact and support from their supervisors and peers.
On the personal front, it helps to “express (your) natural feelings while being sensitive to how others will react,” Geddes says. “Identify the emotion you feel, but if it’s an emotion that is less desired by the other (person), try to manage how you express that emotion by reducing its intensity, for instance.”
In other words, combining personal self-awareness with sensitivity toward others and mindful behavior can help protect you from the negative effects of emotional labor without harming your job performance. Research in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that mindfulness self-training — cultivating “a state of consciousness in which individuals attend to … experiences in a receptive and nonjudgmental way” — helps employees experience significantly less emotional exhaustion and greater job satisfaction, compared to participants in a control group. That’s a win-win situation for employees and employers alike.
More from U.S. News