Photo by Giulia Bertelli on Unsplash

For generations, the word “labour” has been synonymous with physical workloads, but as we settle into what Danny Quah (1999) termed the “weightless economy”, employee labour is now more commonly a matter of emotional exertion. Arlie Hochschild, author of The Managed Heart coined the term “emotional labour” in 1983, arguing that organisations commericalise their employees’ feelings through the display of their emotions as part of their job. But what does emotional labour really mean for employers and how can a better understanding help to strengthen the workplace?

Since Hochschild’s seminal work in 1983 observing flight attendant’s managed emotional displays with sometimes rude and belligerent passengers, a substantial volume of academic research has investigated the strategies employees use to display their emotions in the workplace. This research has shown over time that there are three distinct sources of emotional labour: Natural and genuine, deep acting and surface acting (Humphrey, Ashforth & Dieffendorf, 2015).

Intuitively, we might be likely to say that a natural and genuine display of emotions is the healthiest emotional labour strategy in the workplace, and for some employees it can be. In fact, for some, natural emotional labour actually enhances the workplace experience. But, what happens when a personal factor intervenes and that natural, genuine display of emotions is flooded with concern for personal wellbeing or that of a loved one? This is when emotional display strategies can become more complex.

Digging deep…

Deep acting is a method of summoning emotions which are appropriate to the professional context, but do not necessarily mirror the individual’s personal emotional state. This strategy actually carries a number of benefits for employees and organisations as it helps to increase job satisfaction, organisational commitment and job performance. Customers benefit too, as they are more likely to report greater satisfaction from their “service with a smile”. However, for those times when emotional labour is particularly intensive, Hochschild described the emotional faking strategy of surface acting. Compared to deep acting, where people deliberately engage with the feelings they want to portray, surface acting is a process of disengaging with a fake smile or an emotional display which does not reflect how that individual truly feels. But what is that influences employee emotional display strategies?

A perfect fit…

Person-job fit is a key factor for determining whether an individual will find their role fulfilling and satisfying or stressful and unpleasant. Most jobs will naturally expect positive and pro-social behaviours as the unspoken basis for delivery and how employees are motivated to deliver will affect their emotional labour strategies. Employees who are more inclined toward pro-social behaviours are likely to use deep acting, but surface acting is more likely to come from individuals who are not aligned with organisational work goals. However, this doesn’t mean that all surface acting is inappropriate, in fact there is a finer skill in regulating emotions by switching between surface and deep acting when this helps to maintain a role specific trait such as being caring, understanding or supportive.

Working well…

In terms of employee wellbeing, there is contradictory evidence surrounding the effect of emotional labour on individual outcomes. For jobs where emotional labour is high, there is evidence to support higher levels of job satisfaction. However, there is also evidence for high levels of job burnout (exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy), it depends on what is being measured and how in a given study. Emerging research is beginning to indicate that when employees suppress their authentic emotions in the workplace, they are more likely to reach levels of burnout. Equally, when employees are fully engaged with organisational work goals and indentify with their role, they are less likely to experience the health related costs of high levels of emotional labour.

Whilst research on the subject continues, the picture is becoming clearer and more exciting for organisational psychologists as they work with employers to design roles, work goals and wellbeing support strategies which are aligned from the outset with the personnel who dedicate themselves to their managed heart.

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