What is Emotional Labor and How Does it Impact Employees?

The customer is always right. It’s probably one of the most common sayings in the service industry and it forms the basis of many companies’ policies on customer service – be courteous, friendly, and don’t argue with the customer. Although this can lead to a pleasant experience for customers, anyone who has worked in retail can tell you that some days it’s hard to provide service with a smile. There might be personal stressors weighing on your mind, you may have gotten stuck in traffic and been late to work, or the customer might actually just be wrong. When your work requires you to set all that aside and put on a happy face, you are performing emotional labor.  

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What is Emotional Labor?

The concept of emotional labor was first popularized by Arlie Hochschild in 1983.[i] In general, emotional labor refers to the need for employees to regulate their emotions at work. More specifically, emotional labor refers to instances where employees must outwardly project an emotion that is different from the emotion they are feeling at the time. For example, if a customer complains about the service they receive, rather than showing frustration, the employee is expected to be polite and apologetic.

Traditionally, when we talk about emotional labor we tend to talk about jobs in the service industry – customer service, retail, sales, etc. However, emotional labor extends to many other jobs including education, nursing, and child care. In general, emotional labor is commonly required for public facing roles, which can be quite draining and have negative consequences for employees. For example, the constant discrepancy between an employee’s true feelings and the feelings they are expected to show to others contributes to a sense of exhaustion, depersonalization, and other signs of burnout. These negative consequences of emotional labor also tend to compound over time.

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Impact of Emotional Labor on Employee Performance and Well-Being

When employees work in jobs that require a high degree of emotional labor, they are at risk of experiencing burnout. Burnout is often the result of prolonged work-related stress. It is associated with an extended state of physical or emotional exhaustion, which can lead to difficulty concentrating or staying motivated at work.[ii] However, burnout is just one of the potential side effects of emotional labor.

The psychological effort required to control and express emotions that are not in line with how an employee genuinely feel depletes their mental resources. This can lead to impairments in memory and decision making, which can ultimately impact performance.[iii] As cognitive resources are drained, it also becomes more difficult to sustain emotional control. This means there is a greater risk of having outbursts at work, which can further hinder performance and possibly one’s professional reputation as well.

The good news? There are ways in which employees can manage their emotional labor, and research suggests that some methods may be more effective than others.

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Ways to Manage Emotional Labor

Studies have proposed two ways in which employees manage the work of emotional labor:[iv]

  1. Surface Acting: Employees attempt to suppress their felt emotions and instead project what is expected of them.
  2. Deep Acting: Rather than faking an emotion that they don’t actually feel, employees make an effort to reappraise the situation and align their true feelings with what is contextually appropriate, resulting in genuine displays of emotions.

The effort required for surface acting tends to be more cognitively taxing than the effort required for deep acting. Impairments in memory and decision making tend to be associated with surface acting – but when employees engage in deep acting to manage their emotional labor the same level of impairments are not found.4 This suggests that deep acting may be a more effective strategy for managing emotional labor than surface acting.

There is another reason why deep acting may be better than surface acting to manage emotional labor. Research suggests that individuals can be quite good at detecting the difference between genuine displays of emotion and faked emotions.[v] This means that when an employee is engaging in surface acting, customers are likely to recognize the lack of authenticity, which can lead to lower levels of customer satisfaction. In fact, researchers have found surface acting to be associated with lower levels of customer satisfaction, while deep acting may actually be associated with higher levels of satisfaction.2

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Why Emotional Intelligence is Important

The emotional demands of our jobs aren’t going away any time soon. So, what can we do to become better at managing emotional labor? Since we know that deep acting tends to a more effective strategy for managing emotional labor than surface acting, the question is how do we become better at deep acting? The answer may be found in fostering emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability and willingness to recognize and modify emotions, both in ourselves and in others. EI is made up of several different dimensions, including empathy, recognition of emotion, and expressive control. There is evidence to suggest that EI moderates the impact of emotional labor on job performance and employee well-being.[vi],[vii] When employees with high levels of EI work in jobs with a high amount of emotional labor, they are less likely to be affected by job-related stress than those who are low in EI.6 They also tend to experience better well-being overall and are more likely to display positive workplace behaviors, such as offering to cover a coworker’s shift.7

Based on current research, it seems that one dimension of EI in particular may be especially important for understanding these relations – emotion regulation. As the name would suggest, employees who are high in emotion regulation are better able to monitor and control their emotions. This means that the cognitive effort required to perform emotional labor is not as difficult for them.[viii] Emotion regulation has also been linked to a greater use of deep acting versus surface acting.[ix] So, not only do those with high emotion regulation find the work of emotional labor easier, they also tend to use a more effective regulation strategy.

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What Next?

The research suggests that developing EI, and in particular emotion regulation, may be the key to better employee outcomes for those working in fields that demand a high amount of emotional labor. Fortunately, emotional intelligence is something that can be developed. Taking time to reflect on our behaviors and how we tend to approach stressful situations can go a long ways towards helping us identify better strategies for the future. SIGMA’s measure of emotional intelligence, the Multidimensional Emotional Intelligence Assessment – Workplace – Revised (MEIA-W-R), can help you identify these patterns and build self-awareness. When combined with our executive coaching services, this can set you up to better manage your emotions at work. Ready to get started? Contact us below to learn more.

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[i] Hoschild, A.R. (1983). The managed heart. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

[ii] The Mayo Clinic (2018, Nov 21). Job burnout: How to spot it and take action. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/burnout/art-20046642

[iii] Zyphur, M.J., Warren, C.R., Landis, R.S., & Thoresen, C.J. (2007). Self-regulation and performance in high fidelity simulations: An extension of ego-depletion research. Human Performance, 20, 103-118. https://doi.org/10.1080/08959280701332034

[iv] Hülsheger, U.R., & Schewe, A.F. (2011). On the costs and benefits of emotional labor: A meta-analysis of three decades of research. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 16, 361-389. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022876

[v] Ekman, P., Friesen, W.V., & O’Sullivan, M. (1988). Smiles when lying. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 414-420. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.54.3.414

[vi] Karimi, L., Leggat, S.G., Donohue, L., Farrell, G., & Couper, G.E. (2014). Emotional rescue: The role of emotional intelligence and emotional labour on well-being and job-stress among community nurses. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 70, 176-186. https://doi.org/10.1111/jan.12185

[vii] Miao, C., Humphrey, R.H., & Qian, S. (2017). Are emotionally intelligent good citizens or counterproductive? A meta-analysis of emotional intelligence and its relationships with organizational citizenship behavior and counterproductive work behavior. Personality and Individual Differences, 116, 144-156. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2017.04.015

[viii] Joseph, D.L., & Newman, D.A. (2010). Emotional intelligence: An integrative meta-analysis and cascading model. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95, 54-78. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0017286

[ix] Karmin, J., & Weisz, R. (2011). Emotional intelligence as a moderator of affectivity/emotional labor and emotion labor/psychological distress relationships. Psychological Studies, 56, 348-359. https://doi.org/10.1007/S12646-011-0107-9