The term ‘emotional labour’ first came on my radar at a conference back in 2011.  It was a genuine epiphany, the realisation that something friends, colleagues and I have wrestled with is actually a ‘thing’.  Two years ago, during research for a Masters dissertation, I discovered just how common an issue emotional labour is, and yet it goes largely unrecognised in business.

Academia is paving the way and Covid-19 appears to have accelerated research – a Google Scholar search on “emotional labour” returns 16,500 papers written last year alone.  Organisations appear to be slower to catch on though, which is concerning given potential implications.

What is emotional labour?

The term was coined by Prof. Arlie Hochschild in 1983 to describe the management of emotions, and emotional displays, in order to comply with organisational or societal rules.  These can be positive emotions – a waitress smiling at a difficult customer – or negative – a bailiff deliberately intimidating a debtor.  “Emotional” encompasses facial expression, body language, tone of voice, and language used.  “Labour” is the effort we must put in to achieve our intended outcome, i.e. to portray the feelings we should have, rather than those we actually do.

Although early research focussed mainly on customer-facing industries such as hospitality and nursing, there’s been an increasing recognition over the last 20 years that any situation involving interpersonal relationships is affected.  Studies of university lecturers, barristers and my own research on emotional labour’s effect on management consultants have backed this up. The effort can be exhausting, and have a severe impact on mental health, work performance, and feelings of job or life satisfaction.

What’s the current picture?

As with most aspects of our lives, Covid-19 has had an impact.  Although it’s still early days for researchers, studies into emotional labour since 2020 have seen a significant rise in levels.  In a recent Forbes article, Lindsay Kohler points out that “Managers were suddenly expected to support anxiety, uncertainty, depression, grief, and a whole host of other well-being conditions...”.  We’ve had to adjust how we work, and are communicating in less familiar ways, e.g. via video or teleconference.  As a senior female VP said in McKinsey’s 2021 Women in the Workplace report, “I definitely think emotional labor is being taken for granted. We're so focused on revenue as opposed to the skills required to manage teams remotely in a COVID world. I don't think those skills and emotional labor are being formally recognized or that there's any strong awareness around it."  

How does emotional labour affect change programmes?

There’s plenty of evidence to show that when we’re under pressure, suppressing or faking emotions becomes that much harder.  Going through significant change – particularly with negative personal impacts – is challenging, and requiring high levels of emotional labour only adds to the strain.

It’s not just employees who are affected though.  Change management professionals often act as cheerleaders, promoting the new world to the business and dealing with sometimes hostile responses.  The emotional labour required to appear overly positive in the face of negativity can be huge, and when change agents, champions or super users are also impacted employees, the situation is compounded.  I cannot be the only consultant whose client teammates worked hard to champion change that would ultimately see them out of a job.

What can individuals do?

“Attitude makes a difference – employees who refuse to follow the ‘display rules’ may be regarded as difficult to manage, but they’re also less likely to feel the negative effects. ”

There is an element of luck in managing emotional labour, as it partly depends on natural personality types.  Extraverts are naturally less likely to be affected, particularly when faking positivity.  The same goes for those with effective communication skills, as interactions are less effortful.  Attitude makes a difference – employees who refuse to follow the ‘display rules’ may be regarded as difficult to manage, but they’re also less likely to feel the negative effects.  Frequency and intensity can make a big difference too – the less frequent and extreme, the lower the impact.

The good news for those without these innate abilities though, is that how we perform emotional labour has the biggest impact on reducing negative effects.  The two main types identified by Hochschild are surface acting (faking/supressing emotion), and deep acting (training ourselves to genuinely feel as we ‘should’).  

Of the two, surface acting has been proven the most damaging, with consistent pretence or squashing of feelings leading to emotional conflict.  Crucially, it is also bad for business, particularly in a client-facing workplace.  If a customer recognises the inauthenticity, this can damage relationships, particularly if the service given doesn’t match the faked emotion.  Expending energy on surface acting also means less spent on job performance, and standards can slip.

However, whilst surface acting can be severely damaging, deep acting generally has the opposite effect.  Developing genuine emotions that tally with display rules is good for both personal mental health and for business.  Emotional harmony almost cancels out the labour required, and authentic interaction with clients promotes positive relationships.

How can organisations help?

Unfortunately, even with an increase in research, emotional labour is still little- understood.  Thinking of your organisation, ask yourself: does anyone (apart from you!) know what emotional labour is?  If the answer is yes, explore further:

  • Do they understand the impact?
  • Do they know who’s affected?
  • What are they doing to combat the effects?

Unless explicitly investigated in employee surveys etc, the answers are probably; a little, not really, and not much.  Individual and team discussions can go a long way getting a better understanding, with simple questions like:

  • Do you need to fake or suppress emotions in your job?
  • How easily can you manage your feelings?
  • Do you ever feel emotionally exhausted?
  • How do you manage the exhaustion?

My research

“...effects on management consultants showed groups performing significantly high levels of emotional labour as women (70%), 18-24s (70%), and those with less than two years’ service (69%).”

My own research into the effects on management consultants showed groups performing significantly high levels of emotional labour as women (70%), 18-24s (70%), and those with less than two years’ service (69%).  I will caveat this by saying that data was collected in September/October 2020 when most participants had been working from home with little face-to-face contact.  Personally, this would reduce levels as my natural introversion prefers remote working to the office melee, but the opposite can be true.

Covid-affected or not, this came despite 82% of consulting firms having wellness strategies and support in place.  Senior consultant partners with whom I shared the results were surprised at the outcomes, coming despite best efforts in wellbeing promotion.  

How to get it right

That’s not to say some companies aren’t getting it right.  The Great Place to Work report in 2020 highlighted forward-thinking initiatives in business, including:

  • Deep acting skill-building
  • Understanding client emotions
  • Generation-gap management
  • Mentoring & empathy training
  • Promotion of psychological safety
  • Recognising emotion work as a skill

Combatting emotional labour: where to start

The most practical way to start may be to partner with external organisations if you don’t have in-house expertise.  There are always opportunities for collaboration with universities for research, or you could engage specialists like Mental Health First Aid for training, and tech providers such as WellTech for apps and wearables.

It is critical, though, to make sure any efforts are in line with company culture and behaviours.  As the 2017 Stevenson review into mental health at work points out, “Employees will respond negatively to wellbeing initiatives if they believe they are merely being implemented to get them to work harder”.

Ultimately, there’s no quick fix – humans are complex creatures after all.  But the more organisations begin to understand emotional labour and its effects, the less time employees will spend making faces.