Emotional labor: What it is and what it is not, and how to manage it

The customer is always right. You’ve probably heard this saying before. There’s nothing wrong with it — as long as the customer acts friendly when interacting with frontline workers. But, what happens when customers behave rudely toward such employees?

In that case, workers still have to act nicely and smile — even though they don’t feel like smiling at that moment. In other words, workers experience emotional labor. Now, this is just an example of what emotional labor means in the workplace.

Must-know facts about working off-the-clock

What is emotional labor?

The person who originally coined the term emotional labor was Arlie R. Hochschild — an acclaimed sociologist and professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley.

However, nowadays, this term has a broader meaning because other experts have been expanding it.

Let's have an overview of the definitions of emotional labor.

The original definition of emotional labor by Arlie Hochschild

In her book The Managed Heart, Hochschild defines emotional labor as "regulating or managing emotional expressions with others as part of one's professional work role."

In other words, as Hochschild explains in the interview for the Atlantic, emotional labor is "the work, for which you're paid, which centrally involves trying to feel the right feeling for the job."

She also adds that managing emotions at work usually means suppressing or stimulating feelings.

Not all jobs require managing emotions. But, in some occupations, workers may need to adapt their emotions so they better fit the role.

Suppressing and evoking feelings may go in two directions:

  1. Acting extremely nicely and positively — for example, flight attendants have to be especially nice and pleasant to passengers.
  2. Acting harshly — for example, bill collectors have to act tough to intimidate their clients.

In the aforementioned book, Hochschild also talks about emotional dissonance — the discrepancy between how employees truly feel and the feelings they have to express when performing a job.

The definitions of emotional labor today

Apart from Arlie Hochschild, other authors, journalists, and experts have constructed other meanings of emotional labor. And, according to them, the term is not always tied to work.

Here are the additional definitions of emotional labor:

  1. By the New York Times (author Kristin Wong) — "The duties that are expected of you, but go unnoticed."
  2. By Mel Magazine (author Tracy Moore) — "Free, invisible work women do to keep track of the little things in life that, taken together, amount to the big things in life: the glue that holds households, and by extension, proper society, together."
  3. By Harper's Bazaar (author Gemma Hartley) — experiencing emotional labor means being "the manager of the household, and that being manager was a lot of thankless work." For Hartley, emotional labor involves delegating household chores to partners. Women usually have to manage such duties.

What is NOT emotional labor?

Above, we've seen that some definitions of emotional labor are not tied to work.

But, according to Arlie Hochschild, emotional labor only refers to workplace settings.

That's why she believes that the following examples do not fall under the category of emotional labor.

Doing household chores

As Hochschild explained in the previously mentioned interview, taking care of household chores doesn't necessarily have to be emotional labor.

However, when a person is feeling anxious about doing mandatory chores, such as those around the house — this becomes emotional labor.

Planning social gatherings for friends and coworkers

Now, what about a person who's always planning drinks after work or throwing parties for friends? Is that person experiencing emotional labor?

Not exactly.

Hochschild claims this is rather mental work.

But, if people planning social events feel that this is disturbing them — this is emotion work, the term we'll discuss later.

What are surface acting and deep acting?

As per Hochschild, the most vital techniques employees use when performing emotional labor are:

Deep acting

In deep acting, employees modify their inner emotions so that these emotions are in line with the behavior they are expected to portray in the workplace.

So, workers give their best efforts to actually experience the emotions they must show in the workplace.

It takes time and a lot of effort to change your feelings (instead of faking them), so deep acting is not easy to learn.

What are examples of deep acting?

In The Managed Heart, Hochschild talks about the survey she did at Delta Airlines.

Flight attendants working at this company go through a specific training program. The gist of this program is to help flight attendants learn how to deal with aggressive and rude passengers.

During this program, cabin crew members learn deep acting methods such as:

Being able to perform such examples of deep acting helps flight attendants show desired emotions with ease.

So, even when flight attendants have their personal issues to figure out, they still need to put a smile on their faces while working.

How to stay focused at work when having a personal crisis

Surface acting

As Hochschild points out in one study, surface acting happens when "the body, not the soul, is the main tool of trade."

In surface acting, employees hide their emotions and fake the desired ones — i.e. the emotions that are expected for a particular role.

In addition, surface acting also includes faking a good mood when communicating with clients.

What are examples of surface acting?

An example of surface acting are waiters who always smile — even during busy hours at the restaurant, when they have a lot on their (serving) plates.

Also, any workers who have face-to-face interaction with their clients. The reason is simple — these employees need to act extremely friendly when interacting with clients.

The jobs that require emotional labor

"I have to have a smile on my face. Some mornings that's a little difficult...You're concentrating on what you're doing. It's a little difficult to have that smile all the time. I have one particular girl who says to me, 'What? No smile this morning?' So I smile. Clerks are really underpaid people."

This is a quote from the book Working, by Studs Terkel.

Since they are expected to smile all the time, receptionists are among those workers who deal with emotional labor.

As the authors of Emotional Labor in the 21st Century claim, there are three common traits of jobs that require a high level of emotional labor:

  1. Jobs that involve interaction with clients and customers,
  2. Jobs in which employees have to evoke particular emotions from other parties, and
  3. Jobs in which employers have control over the emotions of their employees.

Now, what jobs, in particular, are linked with emotional labor?

Here are some examples of such occupations:

The jobs that require emotional labor

In the HBR article on emotional labor in the on-demand industry, the author claims that workers employed in an app-based service (e.g. Uber, Airbnb, TaskRabbit) experience high levels of emotional labor.

Namely, such firms have customer rating systems, which means that employees have to achieve almost perfect reviews — in order to not be deactivated.

As a result, such workers need to provide customers with impeccable service.

Moreover, they also need to adapt their emotional performance so that it suits certain expectations from customers and employers.

Emotional labor vs emotion work

Emotional labor should not be used interchangeably with the term emotion work, which is yet another concept Hochschild created.

As we previously discussed, emotional labor involves managing emotions in a professional setting to fit the expected job roles.

On the other hand, emotion work involves all those tasks that we do to make others happy and retain positive relationships with our friends, family, and partners.

For example, performing emotion work means doing tasks such as:

Emotional labor vs emotion work

Another important difference between emotion work and emotional labor is that, for the latter, there are usually clear written instructions on how employees should behave at the workplace.

For instance, workers know what emotions are desired for their job role. Also, sometimes employees undergo specific training programs, such as the one at Delta Airlines.

However, in the case of emotion work, there aren't any emotional expectations or clear rules. In addition, people who perform emotion work do not expect any rewards for their activities.

What are the consequences of emotional labor?

The most common consequences of emotional labor are:

How emotional labor leads to burnout

The authors of the study Emotional Labor and Burnout: A Review of the Literature, refer to Morris' and Feldman's research on the consequences of emotional labor.

According to Morris and Feldman, employees progressively start to experience burnout when their capacity for emotional dissonance is drained — which is a result of emotional labor.

As we mentioned, emotional dissonance is a disagreement between felt and displayed emotions.

So, when workers constantly need to manage their emotions, they become tired and de-energized. As a result, they start to experience burnout.

When it comes to particular jobs that are linked with burnout, the study Emotional Labor and Burnout suggests that employees working in the caregiving service industry are likely to experience a higher risk of burnout.

Another way to explain the link between emotional labor and burnout is to consider the role of surface acting.

The same study mentions that surface acting can cause emotional exhaustion. That's because when surface acting, employees need to put effort into:

Thus, surface acting can also drain energy, which can cause emotional dissonance.

Further on, when constantly experiencing emotional dissonance, workers are at risk of exerting high levels of psychological effort — which can lead to burnout.

Career burnout and its effect on health

How emotional labor leads to fatigue

Another study on the impact of emotional labor on health refers to a survey on emotional labor that employees working in the hotel industry experience.

The survey included 1,320 hotel employees from 5 Seoul hotels. According to their results, there was a high link between emotional labor and fatigue.

They also discovered that female hotel workers were more likely to experience emotional labor — which led to higher levels of fatigue compared to their male coworkers.

Mental fatigue: what it is and how to overcome it

How emotional labor leads to emotional exhaustion

Similar research on the health effects of emotional labor refers to a survey on teachers and how emotional labor impacts them.

The survey included 703 Chinese teachers. According to their findings, when teachers performed surface acting — this type of emotional labor was linked with emotional exhaustion.

As Mayo Clinic defines it, emotional exhaustion is "a state of feeling emotionally worn out and drained." It is usually caused by stress. And, in most cases, emotional exhaustion intensifies over time.

It's worth noting that the same study did not find any correlation between deep acting and emotional exhaustion.

However, they also reported another interesting detail about performing deep acting:

How emotional labor leads to depression

The previously mentioned study on the impact of emotional labor on health cites the survey on toll collectors and the emotional labor they engage in.

In this survey, the participants were 264 female Korean toll collectors.

According to their results, toll collectors were likely to experience depression — as a result of high levels of emotional labor.

How to deal with emotional labor

As you can see, employees can experience some truly negative consequences of emotional labor.

Now, there are methods for employees and managers to prevent such extreme outcomes.

In the following sections, we'll show you how to deal with emotional labor, by covering:

Tips for employees on how to deal with emotional labor

Employees working in certain professions have no other choice but to adapt their feelings to better fit their job roles.

In such cases, it's almost inevitable that they'll experience emotional labor. But, here's how employees can deal with emotional labor more effectively.

Tip #1: Let your manager and coworkers know how you feel

After an 8-hour shift during which you had to smile and be helpful to your customers — even the impolite ones — you feel mentally drained.

Just think about it — your coworkers must be feeling the same. So, there's nothing wrong with letting them know how you feel.

Your colleagues might have some practical tips to help you get through the day easily. Besides, sharing your emotional burden with someone else will help you feel slightly better.

Apart from sharing your feelings with coworkers, you can also let your manager know how you feel. This is especially important if you frequently have to interact with abusive customers. Managers should be informed about such situations so they can take some measures if needed.

How to show your boss how much you work (+ an email template)

Tip #2: Think about the purpose of your work

Be honest with yourself and consider whether you like your job.

Does it fulfill you and are all those long work hours worth it?

Or do you put up with your job only because you need to be financially stable?

If you're happy with your job — good for you.

If you're not — you need to think about the purpose of your job and whether you should keep it.

So, try to see the bigger picture to be able to figure out the purpose of your job.

Maybe you need this job because it helps you pay your bills. Or maybe you have kids and you want to provide them with everything they need.

If you connect with your larger purpose, you'll know that your job is still important and meaningful. Thus, you'll need to accept that there will be negative sides to it, such as dealing with rude customers.

In a way, experiencing emotional labor will be a price you pay to achieve your vital purpose.

Tip #3: Take regular breaks

This seems like a pretty obvious tip, but it's still quite an effective way to relieve stress.

If your job allows you to take frequent breaks, be sure to use them to unwind, chat with your colleagues, or simply clear your mind.

Surface acting can surely negatively affect your mental health. That's why taking breaks also means stepping away from surface acting as well. As a result, workers are able to alleviate stress more effectively.

Tips for managers on how to help employees deal with emotional labor

Aside from employees, managers are in a position to help their workers manage emotional labor.

Here are some ideas on how team leads can lend a helping hand.

Tip #1: Show your employees you trust and support them

When employees are struggling with suppressing or evoking their emotions, it's vital that their managers support them.

This is particularly essential in situations when workers have to deal with rude customers. In such cases, team leads need to let employees know that they trust and support them.

Once employees feel appreciated in the workplace, they'll be able to ease the mental load that comes with emotional labor.

How to build trust in the remote workplace | How to encourage honesty among employees and staff

Tip #2: Reward your employees for their hard work

Performing surface and deep acting can seem less daunting when employees get rewarded for their hard work.

Thus, managers should make sure to provide employees with regular tips and raises.

This way, management shows that they recognize emotional labor as part of work that demands a lot of effort.

And, when it comes to employees, this act will make them feel more appreciated — and emotional labor will feel less burdensome.

Tip #3: Create workplace policy that protects employees

Managers should create a specific workplace policy that will protect not only customers but workers as well.

This policy should contain clear rules that allow employees more autonomy. For example, workers should not be punished when they express their opinions openly.

Besides, such workplace policy should explain employee rights. The policy should also provide guidelines on how employees should react when dealing with unpleasant customers.

Creating a workplace policy that empowers employees will surely help workers feel respected in the workplace, which will help them be less emotionally exhausted.

Conclusion: Emotional labor doesn't have to be draining

Managing your emotions — by suppressing or evoking them, so they better fit your job role is the gist of emotional labor.

When she coined this term, Arlie Hochschild focused solely on managing emotions at the workplace.

However, for other researchers, such as Gemma Hartley, the definition of emotional labor expands to non-work-related areas like households.

When it comes to emotional labor at the workplace, it's worth noting that employees who perform emotional labor do so by engaging in surface or deep acting.

Now, both types of acting require a lot of emotional effort, which is why emotional labor has several key consequences — such as burnout and depression.

Is there a way to deal with emotional labor?

Even though in some jobs emotional labor is inevitable, there are ways to prevent extreme repercussions.

Thus, employees should follow these actions:

On the other hand, it's up to managers to:

This way, workers will be able to alleviate stress and be more content with their work making emotional labor seem less demanding.