Emotional labour

Here we are in the service and knowledge economy. On the upside, it means less dangerous, demeaning and dirty labour than work in the agricultural and industrial economies. On the downside, it means more emotional labour (Arlie Hochschild’s term, in The Managed Heart). One can hurt your back; the other can hurt your psyche.

Two thirds of Australians are at risk of psychic hurt due to emotional labour. This is work that requires employees to hide emotions seen as unwanted and manufacture wanted emotions.

  • Retail and hospitality workers need to be cheerful to gain repeat business.
  • Health care professionals need to remain empathic yet neutral to ensure objectivity.
  • Police officers often need to seem angry to gain a confession.
  • Judges need to appear emotionally neutral so as not to influence the jury.
  • Office workers may be having a bad day but still need to be cordial and pleasant to their colleagues to grease the wheels of teamwork.
  • Customer service people need to be patient and helpful even to the biggest pains in the neck.

The difficulty is all this emotional dishonesty can be bad for employees and bad for organisations. For employees it can mean burnout, loss of job satisfaction and even damaged family relationships (when you’ve been pleasant to people all day, it can be tempting to drop your mask of sweetness when you walk through your front door). For organisations it can mean high staff turnover and disengaged employees.

Before moving on to possible remedies, or at least ameliorations, we need to distinguish between two possible ways of putting on the organisationally required ‘face’: surface acting and deep acting.

Surface acting is when you only disguise your feelings. It’s superficial. You paste on a smile and say ‘Yes, certainly, M’am’ through gritted teeth. But you still want to put your fingers snugly around M’am’s throat.

Deep acting is where you consciously control your feelings. You might recall a happy experience to put you in a cheerful mood. You might see the difficult person you’re dealing with as a frightened child to boost your empathy (reframing). The desired emotions follow naturally.

With surface acting, you don’t kid yourself about how you really feel and most of the time, you don’t kid other people, either. It demands more energy and effort and leads to more health problems, too–greater emotional exhaustion, feeling like a non-person, depression and anxiety, to name a few.

With deep acting, you actually feel the emotion you’re portraying and because it’s more genuine, it’s more believable, both to yourself and to others.

So, given that you’re likely to carry out emotional labour yourself and to be leading and managing people carrying out emotional labour, how can you lessen its negative effects while still displaying the behaviours and attitudes demanded by the organisation? Here are five steps you can take.

  • Recruit the right people. Look for people who share your organisation’s values and whose temperaments and attitudes lead them to naturally display the desired behaviours. Look for people who don’t ‘wear their hearts on their sleeve’ and who have a track record of successfully regulating their emotions.
  • Train people in deep acting. Trained imagination, role play and reframing are three techniques that work.
  • Let people de-brief after a hard day or a hard encounter. Recovery short-circuits burnout, leading to increased performance. People can also learn from each other this way, too.
  • Encourage healthy off-the-job activities (exercise, sport etc.) and a healthy life style (healthy eating, work-life balance etc.) to further replenish depleted resources.
  • Recognise the value of emotional labour.
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