In many job roles it is necessary to maintain some level of facade, whether this is smiling and remaining polite in all circumstances or not rising to inflammatory comments.
The work required to maintain our emotions at an appropriate level for the workplace is termed emotional labour, a phrase first used by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild. This term captures the work put into projecting feelings we don’t have. It can relate both to behaving positively or concealing negative emotions.
It appears emotional labour is a feature of almost all occupations. When research first began, the focus was on service industry careers, such as airline staff, due to the belief that increased customer interaction led to higher levels of emotional labour. However, with further research experts now believe emotional labour features in any occupation requiring interaction with people of any sort. This definition encompasses the majority of job roles, meaning the impact of emotional labour is more prevalent than originally suspected.
Recent research has found it is the way emotions are handled during these interactions that affects the possibility of burnout more than the number of interactions. It is possible for the effort required to maintain a facade in the workplace to take a cumulative toll on employees – even leading them to leave the job in some circumstances.
For example, Mira, an airline employee based in the Middle East, eventually quit her job after years of suppressing her emotions and maintaining the demeanour required of her at work. She found her anxiety increased, started to fear work and found minor things overwhelming.
Emotional labour is dealt with in one of two ways, according to Hochschild. Surface acting refers to situations where responses are altered to suit what the other person in the interaction expects to hear whilst their own feelings are kept intact.
Alternatively, with deep acting an effort is made to actually change your own feelings to suit the person you are interacting with. It is the deep acting approach which is believed to have a lower risk of burnout.
It appears from numerous studies that staying true to your own feelings is the key to minimising the effects of emotional labour. Those employees who frequently have to display emotions at work that are in conflict with their own feelings are more likely to suffer from emotional exhaustion.
There is certainly a need to be professional at work and treat everyone with respect, and sometimes dealing with difficult people is simply part of the role. The evidence appears to show jobs will be more sustainable and enjoyable if an effort is made to understand those you come into contact with rather than expressing things you don’t actually believe.
Lucy Leonard, a clinical and occupational psychologist, believes there are simple steps both organisations and individual employees can take to protect themselves from the effects of emotional labour. These include limiting overtime, breaking from work regularly and using official channels to resolve conflicts with colleagues as early as possible.
Workers who are able to truly empathise with customers or colleagues and are aware of the impact an interaction is having can be protected from emotional labour, thereby reducing exhaustion and feelings of resentment.
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