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What is Emotional Labor?

smiling baristaBy definition (Hochschild, 1983, The Managed Heart), emotional labor refers to regulating or managing emotional expressions with others as part of one's professional work role. Emotional labor is parallel to physical labor; both are occupations that tend to require a lot of effort, but EL is effort around emotions and tends to be female-dominated (i.e., service or caring work) and physical labor is effort with the body and tends to be male-dominated.

What emotional labor is NOT:
Emotional labor is distinct from "emotion work" or the interpersonal task (i.e., gift giving, event planning) that women often do in work and home lives, a current point of confusion.

Learn more about Emotional Labor

EMOTIONAL LABOREMOTION WORK (management/regulation)
Work role specific Any social context

Managing emotions during interactions (e.g., organizational outsiders) to achieve professional goals and conform to work role requirements

Expectations are explicitly stated in handbooks, training, financial gains.

Managing emotions to maintain personal goals and relationships (e.g., with friends, family, acquaintances)

No explicit emotional expectations, training or financial reward, but implicit social norms.

What are some examples of Emotional Labor?

As a form of labor, emotional labor is most prototypically in jobs that require "service with a smile", or any front-line, public-facing job interacting with clients, customers, and patients. At times, employees may have to emotionally labor with coworkers and supervisors to get their work done.

To perform emotional labor, employees may use deep acting to modify their inner emotions, like "pump themselves up" before going out on the work floor (for example, a teacher may do this on the first day) or doing pep talks (for example, flight attendants reminding themselves that passengers are their guests on this flight).

It can also involve surface acting, when employee hide their inner emotions and fake a smile, which is likely when they are tired or when facing a rude customer or upset patient.

What are the consequences of Emotional Labor?

Emotional labor, like physical labor, is effortful and fatiguing when done repeatedly all day long, and can be costly in terms of performance errors and job burnout, especially when surface acting because it results in feeling inauthentic.

Research has also shown that the anxiety and fatigue from surface acting spills over to harm home life, in the form of reduced helping at home, insomnia, and increased alcohol consumption.

What can employees DO about it?

Deep acting appears to be a less harmful way to perform emotional labor, though is not always possible, since it takes some time and attention to step back and change one's feelings (rather than just "faking it"). Training for deep acting and other ways of modifying one's own stress (i.e., mindfulness training) seems to help in the short-term. However, keep in mind that emotions provide information, so reappraising anger about one’s work conditions as being “not that bad” is not a good long-term solution.

Going to a back room for recovery breaks, and being able to "be real" with coworkers to take a break from faking it, also helps reduce the strain of surface acting with customers/patients.

Are there things managers need to be more aware of or need to stop doing?

Put employees first, not customers: Giving employees autonomy and support is key: allowing them the freedom to take a break if needed, or to decide how to manage emotions, and supporting the employee if a customer is rude

My research also showed that when employees felt that their emotional labor was financially rewarded - with tips or raises, for example - that performing surface acting was actually satisfying, and less unpleasant. In other words, recognizing and supporting the effort of emotional labor, just like physical labor, is helpful to value the employee.