Many of us, especially those in a service industry, know what it feels like to keep up appearances at work – when a rude customer, for instance, insults us and we can't retort, faking a calm face or even a smile instead. Experts now call that effort emotional labor. A term first coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, it’s the work we do to regulate our emotions to create “a publicly visible facial and bodily display within the workplace.”
Simply put, it is the effort that goes into expressing something we don’t genuinely feel. It can go both ways – expressing positivity we don’t feel or suppressing our negative emotions, according to a BBC story.
Emotional labor can cause internal stress and negative feelings in us. So much so that some employees have to quit their jobs when faced with emotional labor day in and day out. And the toll is cumulative. Mira W, who preferred not to give her last name, recently left a job with a top airline based in the Middle East because she felt her mental wellbeing was at stake.
People react to such situations differently, though.
“How we cope with high levels of emotional labour likely has its origins in childhood experience, which shapes the attitudes we develop about ourselves, others and the world,” says clinical and occupational psychologist Lucy Leonard.
There are certain ways to deal with emotional labor. Hoschild suggests that the way we handle emotional labour can be categorised in two ways – surface acting and deep acting – and that the option we choose can affect the toll it takes on us.
Take the example of a particularly tough phone call. If you are surface acting you respond to the caller by altering your outward expression, saying the appropriate things, listening while keeping your actual feelings entirely intact. With deep acting you make a deliberate effort to change your real feelings to tap in to what the person is saying – you may not agree with the manner of it but appreciate the aim.
Remaining true to your feelings appears to be key – numerous studies show those who report regularly having to display emotions at work that conflict with their own feelings are more likely to experience emotional exhaustion.
Leonard says there are steps individuals and organizations can take to prevent burnout. Limiting overtime, taking regular breaks, and tackling conflict with colleagues through the right channels early on can help, she says, as can staying healthy and having a fulfilling life outside work. A “climate of authenticity” at work can be beneficial.
Image credit: BBC