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Emotional Labour: The cost of always putting on a smile in the workplace

We instinctively learn to camouflage our emotions the moment we step into a workplace or even a professional setting. No matter how exhausted or emotionally drained out you are, we are expected to smile while dealing with customers. Moreover, we are expected to keep our emotions in check, mostly negative ones, with our superiors and coworkers.

Every so often, you find yourself faking your expression and body language so that they are in line with organizationally desirable attitudes. This control over your emotion is so customary across workplaces that often, the managers and the employees themselves do not take the fatigue caused by it into account.

An office environment with cheerful employees correlates directly with increased productivity and customer satisfaction. Especially jobs that require routinely facing clients or customers, e.g., flight attendants, sales, and customer care executives, must be conducted with extra care to keep on a happy tone at any cost. Some jobs always require you to be uplifting, like coaches and counsellors. Some jobs demand you to be emotionally neutral in the most arduous conditions, like a doctor or police officer. A teacher has to be patient with the most puckish batch of students. Any alteration to such norms is considered to be unprofessional or sometimes inappropriate. This persistent disparity between felt emotions and exhibited emotions causes a phenomenon called emotional labour.

Emotional labour has far-reaching effects on an employee’s life. It hinders productivity and results in negative mental, physical and behavioural responses. In many cases, their job-related day-long emotional fatigue reflects in their personal life through poor anger management, insomnia, and unhealthy relationships with family members. In extreme cases, employees are required to hoist a smile on their faces in response to rude customer comments. Like other forms of bullying and hostility, these experiences leave a mark on those people’s mental health. Moreover, since there are no formal acknowledgements or rewards for dealing with added mental pressure, emotional labour is linked with job dissatisfaction and a high turnover rate.

What can you do as an employee?

Most people with emotionally laborious jobs engage in surface acting, behaving according to organisational policies keeping aside their original emotions. Surface acting is faking your emotions to be acceptable in the workplace. However, deep acting is the less harmful approach to emotional labour. Research suggests deep acting can help workers cope with stress. The process by which people modify their emotions to fit their projected role is known as deep acting. Deep actors still experience unpleasant feelings, but they figure out how to control them to maintain the ideal condition.

For example, a customer care executive may modify their internal state by not personally taking negative feedback on a product or service. Talking to reliable coworkers and being available when they need to talk can effectively de-stress during work. Joining after-office parties and other social events with colleagues alleviate the tension of maintaining decorum. Deep acting focuses on your job’s positive experiences and assures you that you are happy with the job instead of faking it. If you feel worn out from the constant smile on your face, remind yourself how you have helped your team achieve its monthly or yearly goals. Top-level employees and managers can be faced with emotional burnout too. Deep acting is a better regulating strategy for them, for instance, realising how meaningful their jobs are and how they support many other employees.


What can you do as a manager?

There are no worldly rewards attached to emotional labour. Therefore, it’s difficult to determine the monetary value of engaging in it. That is why it is imperative to acknowledge the effort from a managerial position.

Every organisation has “display rules” about how the employees should behave or even dress. For example, a retail staff must exhibit positive energy in front of the customers. Waiters must always be in proper uniform while at work. Keeping up with all these display rules might feel redundant at times. Instead of just inflicting hard and fast rules on them, occasionally talking about the implications of the rules is a way better approach to prevent the employees from emotional fatigue and keep them motivated. For example, when a sales associate does his job with a smile, the customers are more likely to feel welcomed and comfortable shopping. When you dress up appropriately before a meeting, it shows you take the deal seriously. A manager should be aware of the effects of emotional labour on the workers and act accordingly while determining and imposing display rules.

Furthermore, since most companies don’t pay extra bucks for engaging in emotional labour, it should be considered in performance evaluation. Rewards don’t always have to be monetary. Research shows that acknowledgement and admiration also play essential roles in motivating employees.

Emotional labour is not something that can be avoided entirely in workplaces. However, the strategies mentioned above can make it easier to perform better, curtailing the day-to-day fatigue from your job.  

Author- -Hridita Islam

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