By Steven Kiely MAPS, School of Sport Science, Exercise and Health, University of Western Australia and Dr Peter Sevastos, School of Psychology, Curtin University of Technology

Over recent decades, industrial restructuring in the Western world has witnessed a significant shift of employment from agriculture and manufacturing industries to the services sector. This shift has seen an increase in face-to-face and voice-to-voice interactions in such occupations, along with the development and establishment of new role requirements increasingly connected with work in the 21st Century. Of these new role requirements, organisations and occupational bodies have formulated ‘display rules, which serve as the standard for the appropriate expression of workplace emotions.

Display rules vary, and are requirements across occupational categories. For example, retail workers must appear cheerful and friendly during customer interactions to enhance service quality and encourage repeat business, while detectives and police officers often express anger to gain compliance and even obtain confessions from criminals. Others, such as judges, are expected to display emotional neutrality so as not to influence the outcome of a trial, whereas medical practitioners are required to remain neutral to ensure professional objectivity. However, conforming to display rules, regardless of circumstances or discrepant internal feelings, is easier said than done.

Emotional regulation through surface and deep acting

The regulation of emotional expressions and feelings as part of the paid work role has been coined emotional labour (EL) (Hochschild, 1983). EL is necessitated when expected workplace emotions cannot be naturally felt or displayed, and is routinely performed using surface acting (SA) and deep acting (DA) (Hochschild, 1983). SA involves the management of observable expressions. SA can include faking emotions not actually felt, along with suppressing and hiding felt emotion that would be inappropriate to display. For example, a customer service representative may hide feelings of anger from a rude or demanding customer and instead paste on a smile to ensure a smooth workplace interaction. Hochschild commented that "in surface acting, we deceive others about what we really feel but we do not deceive ourselves" (p.33).

DA, on the other hand, is the intrapsychic process of attempting to experience or alter feelings so that expected emotional displays may naturally follow. DA may be performed by actively exhorting feeling, wherein an individual cognitively attempts to evoke or suppress an emotion. For example, flight attendants were trained to cognitively reappraise disorderly adult passengers as children so as not to become infuriated with their seemingly infantile behaviour (Hochschild, 1983). Another DA strategy, trained imagination, focuses on invoking thoughts, images and memories to induce the desired emotion (e.g., thinking of a funny experience in order to feel happy). This technique is comparable to the way that actors trained in method acting (Stanislovsky method) ‘psyche themselves up' for a performance. DA then, if successful, is able to produce an authentic emotional display.

Consequences of emotional labour

Given that people experience a wide range of emotions during any given workday, emotions that are felt and those that are required may not always be congruent with each other. When such a mismatch occurs, an employee may choose to ignore the prescribed display rules and express genuine emotions during stressful encounters. Such emotional deviance may be detrimental to one's wellbeing, however, especially if the employee identifies with the occupation and its display rules (e.g., a counsellor's curt response to a client). On other occasions, there may be a discrepancy between expressed and felt emotions, creating the experience of emotional dissonance, which has been associated with a range of negative psychological outcomes (Zapf, 2002).

Because SA leads to inauthentic emotional displays, unlike DA that produces an authentic display albeit with more effort, most academic attention has been focused towards the negative effects of SA on the individual. Along with feelings of inauthenticity, SA exerts its pernicious effects through emotional dissonance, resource depletion, and emotional estrangement from others and oneself. For example, SA has been linked to negative psychological and physical health outcomes including burnout in the form of increased emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, reduced personal accomplishment, job dissatisfaction, depression, anxiety, psychosomatic complaints, and intentions to resign (Brotheridge & Grandey, 2002; Grandey, 2000; Montgomery, et al., 2005, 2006). These effects often remain, even after controlling for demand-control variables, suggesting that SA exerts its effects independent of other work stressors (Näring, et al., 2006). Recent research has also found a link between SA and work-family interference. As one counselling psychologist known to the first author so eloquently stated, "When I get home from a hard day's work with clients, I leave empathy at the door". Other psychologists have also revealed that they can become emotionally distant and detached at the end of the workday. This depletion of emotional resources can leave little energy for domestic duties and attending to personal relationships, which may inevitably cause strain. 

Individual and organisational remedies

The mismatch between felt emotion and what an employee is required to display (i.e., feeling angry, but having to display cheerfulness) can be a draining aspect of the EL process. Thus, it is important that organisations select people with the aim of achieving the best person-job fit. A useful way to accomplish this task may be to use personality tests that measure trait affectivity. For example, applicants who demonstrate a high level of positive affectivity would be considered a good job fit for service-oriented occupations. Linking the person to the emotional job requirements could save costs associated with absenteeism and turnover.

Much of the stress involved with SA is the discrepancy between felt and displayed emotions (i.e., feeling angry, but having to fake happiness as part of the work role). This causes feelings of inauthenticity and does nothing to reduce emotional dissonance. Thus, training people to DA may be a valuable organisational tool. People could use DA strategies such as trained imagination, to ‘psyche themselves up' before entering their work role, to ensure that their emotional displays are genuine. Moreover, using roleplay situations to teach reappraisal or cognitive reframing skills could be another useful strategy to teach people how to transform emotions, and to handle emotionally difficult situations without becoming overwhelmed. This would lead to a greater sense of personal accomplishment when they are able to successfully deal with emotionally demanding situations.

Because EL can drain emotional resources and cause burnout, recovery from work is necessary to protect individuals' health and wellbeing in the long run. Recovery refers to the process during which an individual's functioning returns to its pre-stressor level. This can be reflected in both psychological detachment from work, low fatigue and undisturbed sleep. If recovery is not successful, wellbeing will be affected and the individual starts the working day in a suboptimal state.

Successful recovery after work occurs when wellbeing improves, and resources drawn upon during the strain process are restored (Sonnentag & Natter, 2004). Thus, off-job time activities (e.g., playing a sport, going to the gym, etc.) that offer the opportunity to recover from job stress and to replenish depleted resources should be incorporated into HR management systems.

The effort-recovery model (Meijman & Mulder, 1998) suggests that the core mechanism through which recovery at work occurs is the temporary relief from demands placed on the individual. Emotionally demanding jobs that offer regular scheduled breaks and time-out rooms where people can emotionally vent are necessary for the health and wellbeing of workers. The conservation of resources theory (Hobfoll, 1989) also suggests that social support at work is a vital process in restoring emotional resources. For psychologists, for example, the supervision process can be a valuable time to decompress by releasing pent-up emotions caused by work stressors. Thus, regular supervision with a trusted colleague or advisor can be important in the recovery process.

Researchers have argued that emotional regulation should be properly rewarded based on the theories of compensating wage differentials and human capital (Glomb, et al., 2004). However, due to the failure by traditional job evaluation systems to adequately measure and compensate for emotional labour in monetary terms (Steinberg, 1999), organisations should consider using formal and informal rewards and recognition as a symbol of appreciation for the emotional effort exerted by employees. Indeed, if service organisations wish to attract and retain high performing employees they must be compensated accordingly. Traditional job evaluation tools may also need to be updated to ensure that emotional labour demands are taken into
consideration.

The principal author can be contacted on sjkiely@westnet.com.au.

References 

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Hobfoll, S. E. (1989). Conservation of resources: A new attempt at conceptualizing stress. American Psychologist, 44, 513-524.

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