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How to Mitigate Emotional Labour in the Workplace

Author(s): Elizabeth McCall

After World War II, with society’s shift into the post-industrial world, the service industry has taken over as the dominant form of business in North-America. The service industry sector is one that provides intangible products or services to the public, for example retail workers, cashiers, transportation operators, police officers, etc. In the United States alone, the service economy has grown from 54.7% in 1950 to 72.5% in 1992 (de Castro, Agnew, & Fitzgerald, 2004). This influx of front-facing service jobs has created an industry where emotional labour is seen as a common and necessary part of the job, but this can have a large impact on employees' well-being if not taken into consideration by the employer.

Researchers define emotional labour as the management of one's feelings while dealing with a customer, that creates a socially desirable, positive outward appearance (van Gelderen, Konijn, & Bakker, 2017). For example, an organization expects the employee to serve the customer with a smile on their face even when they are having a negative interaction with them.

Jobs that require emotional labour generally share three characteristics; they require the worker to deal with customers on a face-to-face basis, whether in person or over the phone, internet, etc., they require the worker to control the emotional state of the customer and, through the use of training and supervision, they give employers the opportunity to have some control over the emotional state of their employees (de Castro, Agnew, & Fitzgerald, 2004).

Researchers have found that employees often turn to one of two methods to deal with the emotional pressure of their jobs; surface acting or deep acting. Surface acting is the act of suppressing ones negative emotions, and/or faking positive emotions. While deep acting is the act of working to cognitively changing ones feelings as a way of learning to self-regulate (van Gelderen, Konijn, & Bakker, 2017). However when an employee’s inner feelings do not align with their outward projections their performance can be negatively affected, not only for their current task but future tasks as well. Research has found that emotional labour has a negative effect on five main cognitive tasks; memory, reasoning, thinking, attention, and perception (Godelieve, et al, 2021). All of which would could have a large impact on employee performance if negatively affected.

Another way that employers can help mitigate the toll of emotional labour is through job crafting, which allows employees to change certain characteristics of their role so that it aligns more with their skills, wants/needs and personal goals. Job crafting can be broken down into two main parts; increase job resources, and decrease job demands. Through the Job demands-resources model, studies show that job demands that are more emotionally taxing have a higher psychological cost for employees and can lead to emotional exhaustion, burnout and a higher turnover rate(Huang, Lin, & Lu, 2020).

Not only does emotional labour have an effect on an employee’s work performance, but it also has an impact on their overall well-being and mental health. It reduces job satisfaction, effecting the employees happiness which can have an effect on their overall mood. Emotional labour can also greatly effect an employee’s stress levels which can lead to physical ailments, mental health problems, and behavioural issues. All of which can lead to a negative impact on their personal and professional relationships.

By recognizing the cost of negative customer interactions, organizations are able to mitigate the emotional labour that is required by their employees. For example, by using the Conservation of Resources theory organizations can help lower employee resource depletion by offering counselling, ensuring that the working environment is rooted in fairness and justice, and by having positive leadership (Kashif, Zarkada, & Thurasamy, 2017).

How to help employees deal with emotional labour in the workplace?

1. Ensure that the company culture is rooted in fairness, justice and positivity

By having leaders within the organization support their employees in a positive way by mentoring, one on one meetings, and planning their future goals. Even simply by acknowledging the difficulty workers face by dealing with customers face to face, can increase employee satisfaction. By handling these negative interactions fairly and justly it will help to decrease the negative impacts of emotional labour.

2. Create spaces within the organization that are calming, and stress free

Have areas, such as quiet rooms, within the organization that employees can use during breaks. This will help reset their nervous system after a stressful event and allow them time to calm down. By having the area separate from their workspace, it also allows them to physically distance themselves from the stress and their work. This ensures that they fully recover through the use of psychological and relaxation recovery methods.

3. Help employees access benefit programs

Educate employees, managers and leaders within the organization on the benefits of wellness programs. Have lists of councilors and stress management programs available to employees. This takes the guesswork out of seeking help, and will make it easier for employees to use these services.

4. Offer employees the option to create their own work design

Allow employees the opportunity to change certain characteristics of their jobs, through job crafting, to better align with their needs and wants. This can be done through offering flexible work hours, the ability to work from home if applicable, longer break periods, etc. This can lead to higher employee satisfaction and lower turnover rates.


de Castro, A. B., Agnew, J., & Fitzgerald, S. T. (2004). Reaction Piece Emotional Labor Relevant Theory for Occupational Health Practice in Post-Industrial America. AAOHN Journal, p.109-115.

Godelieve, H., Jansen, P. G., De Lange, A. H., Spisak, B. R., & Swinkels, M. (2021). The cognitive costs of managing emotions: A systematic review of the impact of emotional requirements on cognitive performance. Work & Stress, p.301-26.

Grandey, A. A., & Melloy, R. C. (2017). The State of the Heart: Emotional Labor as Emotion Regulation Reviewed and Revised. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, p.407-422.

Huang, L.-C., Lin, C.-C., & Lu, S.-C. (2020). The relationship between abusive supervision and employee's reaction: the job demands-resources model perspective. Personnel Review, p.2035-2054.

Kashif, M., Zarkada, A., & Thurasamy, R. (2017). Customer aggression and organizational turnover among service employees: The moderating role of distributive justice and organizational pride. Personnel Review, p.1672-1688.

van Geldren, B. R., Konijn, E. A., & Bakker, A. B. (2017). Emotional labor among police officers: a diary study relating strain, emotional labor, and service performance. International journal of human resource management, Vol.28 (6), p.852-879.

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