Article (August-2016)


Emotional labor: Importance and ways to handle it

Dr. A Jagan Mohan Reddy

Designation : -   Professor (HR)

Organization : -  Symbiosis Institute of Business Management, Symbiosis International University, Ranga Reddy District (Telangana)


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"The only way to get what you're worth is to stand out, to exert emotional labor, to be seen as indispensable, and to produce interactions that organizations and people care deeply about." 

In today's competitive world, the key to success in any business relies on customer satisfaction and organizations, and more so the service oriented ones, can't service the needs of their clients/customers properly if they fail to satisfy the needs of the internal customers, i.e., their employees. Employees are the valuable assets of an organization and the key to Success. And employers need to understand that a content and motivated employee has a higher probability of making significant contributions to the organization. Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric stated in one of his articles that "Any company trying to compete with competitors should figure out a way to engage the mind of every employee".

The issue
Hari, who works as a customer service agent for Spice jet, has to regulate his emotions (called emotional labor) on the job to be able to appear professional when dealing with negative issues and disgruntled or rude customers. Hari's personal life was in shambles last year when his wife left him one weekend morning. But when he reports to work on Monday morning he should act to be happy and polite to airline customers, though inside devastated and depressed. He had a feeling of uneasiness as his real emotion and his fake emotion [surface acting] were drastically at odds with each other.

Emotional labor
Arlie Hochschild created the term 'emotional labor' in 1983 to describe the things that service workers do that goes beyond physical or mental duties. Showing a genuine concern for customers' needs, smiling, and making positive eye contact are all critical to a customer's perception of service quality. These types of activities, when they're essential to worker performance, are emotional labor. There are two specific types of emotional labor: deep acting and surface acting. Deep acting is about a person trying to feel a specific emotion that they are thinking about in their mind. On the other hand, surface acting is when a person has to fake emotion to meet certain social or work rules.

Why it matters?
Emotions play an important part in how employees function during the work day. Emotional labor and emotional dissonance reflect how challenging it can be for employees to maintain a helpful, caring attitude - when inside, they may be dealing with negative personal or work issues. Emotional dissonance occurs when employees are not able to control their emotions. Their real emotions become an obstacle to job performance. While most of us aren't professional actors, managing the emotions that we express to other people at work is par for the course and it can also be exhausting.

Companies often place a great deal of strategic importance on service orientation, not only to external customers but to colleagues and internal clients as well. While emotional labor is applicable to many areas of business, the consequences are probably greatest in traditional service roles. However, in an increasingly service-oriented marketplace, it's important to understand how emotional labor affects workers, and what organizations can do to support and manage any issues.

Implications for workers
When you engage in emotional labor you either 
(a) Express only your positive feelings, or 

(b) Hide or manage your negative feelings. And to deal with negative emotions, people tend to do one of the following:

  •     Show emotion they don't really feel
  •     Hide emotion they really do feel
  •     Create an appropriate emotion for the situation

When you continually need to show only those emotions that are appropriate for the job, despite how you really feel, this can often lead to emotional conflict between your real emotions and those you show to others. And this emotional conflict could lead to emotional exhaustion and burnout for workers. Further, hiding your emotions on a regular basis might lead to high levels of stress and even a disconnection from close personal relationships. Some workers may be able to identify with the organization's values of positive emotional communication, making them better prepared to express appropriate emotions. Also, people who are generally more cheerful and pleasant may be able to turn off negative emotions more easily than others.

Implications for organizations
Service workers are required to perform in a certain manner for providing high quality service. And this is usually defined by management, then strictly regulated and monitored, e.g.,'The customer is always right,' or 'Always greet customers with a smile.' Expecting people to work in teams, and show positive team behaviors with their colleagues, adds another element of emotional labor. In fact, many organizations place a growing emphasis on building relationships with a wide variety of stakeholders. This comes with many emotional labor conditions. And it goes without saying that helping people deal with the consequences of emotional labor will improve staff morale and reduce staff turnover. Here are some strategies that organizations can use to help their staff deal with the demands of emotional labor:

  • Use buffering -Assigning front-end personnel to manage the emotional demands and needs of customers so that by the time customers reach back-end workers, they can concentrate on business.
  • Staff assistance programs - Investing in the care and development of their workers by providing access to stress management and emotional health services. 
  • Teach problem-solving techniques - Helping staff solve problems more effectively helps people build confidence and reduces their negative reactions to angry or unpredictable situations. 
  • Improving emotional intelligence - The ability to recognize other people's emotions is an effective way to reduce the burden of emotional labor. 
  • Share knowledge - One of the most effective ways to help people deal with the realities of emotional labor is to share success stories. Allow staff to learn how others successfully dealt with the impact of emotional conflict.
  • Bring emotional labor into the performance evaluation process -This provides an incentive for them to show organizationally accepted emotions more often.

Service excellence is now a key driver of success in most organizations. And elements of emotional labor are present in almost all the workplaces. So it's important to understand the impact of emotional labor, and how it affects workers. Employers need to understand that the relationship between the external customers and internal customers is symbiotic and without one, they wouldn't have the other. When their problems are addressed appropriately, service workers often report tremendous levels of satisfaction and are able to help clients resolve their problems. Henceforth, the mantra for success for the employer is to "Take care of your employees who will in turn take care of your business".