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The High Cost of Emotional Labour


Jobs that require emotions to be carefully managed can leave workers open to burnout and withdrawal. The pandemic isn’t helping.


Smiling at an angry customer. Summoning interest in a client’s ill-conceived ideas. Staying calm in a room of unruly students. These are examples of emotional labour in action. More than just playing nice, emotional labour demands that we manage our feelings to fulfil the implicit or explicit requirements of our job—even if it means swallowing how we really feel.  

Unlike physical or intellectual labour, the demands of emotional labour are poorly understood and rarely discussed. The immediate outcomes are invisible, yet may show up as absenteeism or worker burnout. And since the pandemic upended organizational life, it has been even more difficult to manage.

To better understand the challenges of emotional labour in times of great change, Smith Business Insight spoke with Laura Rees, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at Smith School of Business. Rees has conducted considerable research in emotions and related influences that shape how we make decisions, handle negotiations and perform at work.

Emotional labour is neither inherently good nor bad, yet many people feel it’s exhausting and inauthentic. What would you say to them?

I’d say it’s more a matter of framing because you’re always emotionally regulating in some way. But part of why emotional labour can feel exhausting and inauthentic is the feeling of control. Our need for control and autonomy is really high. In the workplace, requirements are sometimes explicitly laid out, so that we don’t have any control but must engage in those behaviours. A common example is that you must smile at every customer. In cases like this, regulating your expressions can feel worse because then it’s not in your control. It may not feel comfortable because it’s not how you would act if you had the choice, and you’re also not given the opportunity to recover afterwards. 

It’s often lower-paid workers, such as restaurant servers, who are expected to do more of that type of labour and who tend to have the lowest control over their behaviour. In contrast, researchers have also looked at emotional labour for self-employed hairdressers and blackjack dealers. They may be somewhat lower down on the rungs in their organizations but they have more control over their behaviours and they have a financial incentive to engage in emotional labour. So they actually suffer less than they might otherwise because they have some autonomy and control.

Overall, any kind of emotional labour is easier in situations that give people more control. It’s also easier if people feel better able to perform this type of labour. If you’re an extrovert or have higher emotional intelligence or confidence in your ability to perform emotional labour, it’s a little easier for you psychologically. But it can be harder if you really, really value authenticity and thus frame emotional labour—or even typical kinds of emotion regulation common in daily life—as being disingenuous.  

Are there any forms of emotional labour that are better than others?

A lot of the negative outcomes of emotional labour come from the difference between “surface acting” and “deep acting”. Surface acting is when you’re simply outwardly displaying what you’re supposed to display. I smile but I’m not actually feeling happy. Maybe I’m really sad or tired or angry. You often see this in service-focused work, like salespeople, front-line workers, shopkeepers or airline attendants. It’s usually associated with more negative outcomes. 

Deep acting is when you change how you feel inside to match the expected outward display. So if I’m supposed to be happy in front of my students or clients or teammates, I think about an instance when I feel happy and then it’s easier to display happiness. Some people say that’s actually authentic because you have purposely changed those feelings to be appropriate to the situation at hand. Others argue that since you’ve deliberately altered your feelings, it’s not really authentic. But “authentic” is a pretty complex term and there isn’t yet strong agreement on what it really means.   

For the purposes of what type of emotional labour is better in daily life, there’s a pretty good consensus that deep acting is better. It’s just easier on you psychologically. It gives you more control. It feels less forced. It takes less conscious emotional regulation and effort. 

What are the costs of emotional labour?

Over time, you see stress and burnout, depersonalization and other emotional outcomes like lower job satisfaction. There can be higher absenteeism, turnover and work withdrawal, and lower work engagement. So it’s not just individuals that are affected but also their organizations. 

Emotional labour is almost uniformly worse under surface acting than under deep acting. But even with deep acting, you need time to recover and a chance to be authentic with your colleagues or co-workers. Like most things, self-control is a finite resource. If you draw down that account, you need time to build it back up again.

How has the pandemic made emotional labour even harder to navigate? 

It’s kind of this weird trifecta. One, so many of our basic assumptions about life—how we interact, what we’re supposed to do—are either being challenged and redefined or even completely thrown out the window. Two, we’re having to communicate through media that we just have not evolved to communicate in very well. The farther you get from face-to-face communication, the more difficult it can be to react well to what’s going on. And three, we’re used to seeing lots of non-verbal information when we interact with others. But now, even when we see people in person, we’re wearing masks and literally missing half of people’s facial reactions, which is problematic for communication. It’s rife for misunderstandings and potential conflicts. 

To top it off, no one really has a good chance to [emotionally] recover these days. For people doing the hardest emotional labour right now—health-care workers and front-line workers—the ways they would typically recover are through having time, space or unregulated social interaction to build that account back up. But people are working longer hours in more difficult circumstances. They often don’t have enough breaks or even the physical space of break rooms where they could decompress or have restorative social interactions with their co-workers. 

How can organizational leaders mitigate the costs of emotional labour?

If we think about emotional labour requirements in the same way we think about physical labour requirements, it might get us at least partway there. We expect organizations to understand the kind of physical labour they ask their employees to do, and to allow employees to make an informed decision about that labour. Then, if something goes wrong, there are guidelines and regulations for how to respond.

If we can translate that kind of thinking and those types of expectations and guidelines into an emotional and psychological world, how much better would it be? We recognize ways physical requirements have changed from COVID. Maybe we need to ask employees how the emotional requirements of their jobs have also changed. Then at least we can start figuring out where we’re off in our calibration and educate people on what’s expected and how to deal with different situations—and to get help if employees need it. 

If organizations haven’t historically been used to thinking about it in these kinds of concrete ways, now they’re even less so, given how much has changed. But if they did, they might realize what they’re really asking employees to do. For example, I don't know if employers necessarily thought at any point that if they put a worker at the front door to ensure customers are complying with public health guidelines, these workers might actually have to deal with someone who refuses to wear a mask and threatens them with a weapon. Yet, in the U.S. at least, workers have been shot at. 

Firms should make the necessary effort to understand, disclose and adequately compensate and address the emotional labour demands of the job, particularly in times like these when employees may be even less able to understand what’s required of them.

In some ways, emotional labour is actually more complex than physical labour. And yet we’ve been ignoring it entirely. This is a huge miss and we should pay attention to it. The intense disruption and difficulties of the pandemic have highlighted how important understanding and managing emotional labour is. We can’t afford to miss this chance. 

Want to hear more about emotions at work from Laura Rees? Check out her free webinar: How to Make More Rational Decisions at Work