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What is Emotional Labor?

By Tara Barnett
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Emotional labor is the work a person does to make his or her displayed emotions match those expected for a position. Some people have more difficulty with this type of work than others, and for many people emotional labor can lead to increased stress and burnout. The most easily recognizable case of emotional labor is when a supervisor demands employees in customer service positions smile and remain pleasant at all times, even in the face of insults. Jobs in which the employee's intelligence is valued more than his or her physical presence often require less labor from the emotions, so this type of labor disproportionately punishes the poor and disenfranchised.

There are many different examples of emotional labor, and not all of them relate to being pleasant. In some cultures, a person must be reserved or intimidating for certain jobs, even when he or she feels happy. More commonly, this type of labor surfaces as a demand on service workers or other low-level employees who are told to present certain emotions, even if they do not feel them. Failing to appear pleasant in a customer service setting can, in some cases, lead to termination of employment.

People who have their emotions regulated in abnormally strict ways by their employers often experience a decreased quality of life or dissatisfaction with a job. This is because these people feel controlled and that the majority of their day is inauthentic. Interestingly, companies that feel the need to micromanage the emotions of their employees are often the same companies that treat their employees poorly, so training in appropriate affect can sometimes be used as an indication of how fairly a company treats employees.

One of the major problems with emotional labor is that it is extremely gendered in many cases. Women are often expected to display positive emotions at all times, and doing otherwise is taken as poor customer service or a bad attitude toward work. Men have much lighter emotional expectations in the field of customer service, and even when a job demands display of affect, it is more common for men to experience genuine emotions rather than feel the need to fake them.

There are many ways of getting around difficult emotional labor. For example, employees who must act with solemnity in their jobs will often feel genuine solemnity if they take their job seriously and truly care about the task at hand. One of the ways around mandating that employees smile constantly is creating an environment in which employees wish to smile. Creating happy and fair work environments severely reduces emotional strain on service workers and can lead to better morale and more loyal workers.

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Discussion Comments
By pastanaga — On Nov 18, 2013

@indigomoth - I actually wonder if some people find this kind of work more difficult because they care a little bit too much. I have a relative who is a nurse and you might think that would require a lot of emotional labor in the workplace.

But she just doesn't care about that aspect of the job. She does her work and relates to the people she treats in a genuine way and if she's feeling grumpy, she just lets it show and it doesn't bother her.

By indigomoth — On Nov 18, 2013

@bythewell - I respect people who are able to do that, but I just can't adjust to that kind of emotional dissonance. I tried to train as a teacher for a while and I just couldn't do it, because you really have to have a game face on all the time for kids. If you don't seem genuinely enthusiastic, they will definitely notice and respond by losing their own enthusiasm.

It made me miserable to try and be upbeat all the time, which, of course, made it even harder to be upbeat until I was heading for a breakdown. I'm much happier now that I'm in a job that doesn't require that kind of emotional labor.

By bythewell — On Nov 17, 2013

I've never heard of this term before, but it describes something that I've got a lot of experience in. I've worked in retail for a long time and some days it can be extremely difficult to get this kind of emotional work done, even though it seems like it wouldn't be that hard to just keep a smile on your face.

It definitely helps to have a good work environment, particularly one where the management is going to back you up if a customer really mistreats you.

But mostly, I try to keep it in mind that my day is almost always going to be better if I act as though I'm happy. That might sound kind of cynical, but I find that if I act happy, I tend to feel more happy and the people around me respond so much better. If I act in a grumpy way then they respond in kind, which makes the day much longer.

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