Updated: Aug 22
Author(s): Elizabeth McCall
After World War II, with society’s shift into the post-industrial world, the service industry had 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; some examples include retail workers, cashiers, transportation operators, and police officers. In the United States alone, the service economy had 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, which 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 one’s negative emotions and/or faking positive emotions. Deep acting is the act of working to cognitively change one’s 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 in 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 these 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 influence an employee’s work performance, but it also has an impact on their overall well-being and mental health. It reduces job satisfaction, affecting the employees’ happiness, which can have an effect on their overall mood. Emotional labour can also greatly affect an employee’s stress levels, which can lead to physical ailments, mental health problems, and behavioural issues. All of these 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
Have leaders within the organization support their employees in a positive way by mentoring, having one-on-one meetings, and planning their future goals. Even simply 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 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 councillors 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.
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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, 35(3), 301-26. https://doi.org/10.1080/02678373.2020.1832608
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, 22(3), 407-422. https://doi.org/10.1037/ocp0000067
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, 49(9), 2035-2054. https://doi.org/10.1108/PR-01-2019-0002
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, 46(8), 1672-1688. https://doi.org/10.1108/PR-06-2016-0145
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, 28(6), 852-879. https://doi.org/10.1080/09585192.2016.1138500