A significant number of organizations, especially those in the service sector, require their employees to manage their emotions in a given way while interacting with customers, sometimes including fellow workers. Particularly, front-line employees are expected to treat customers not only with a lot of courtesy but also with friendliness and empathy. This phenomenon in the workplaces is known as emotional labor. The term was first used by Hochschild in 1983 after studying emotional labor among Delta Airlines flight attendants (Byrne, Morton & Dahling, 2011). Emotional labor can generally be defined as the management of feelings by employees to establish publicly observable facial and bodily expressions by either inducing or suppressing true feelings to maintain the outward appearance that creates a proper state of mind in others, especially customers. Therefore, the paper mainly focuses on the emotional labor in the workplace, and it involves the review of existing literature on the topic and conducting an interview to collect primary data from employees in various workplaces. The paper narrowed on employees from three workplaces that include flight attendants, nursing home workers, and emergency workers. In addition, the paper looks at the impact of emotional labor on employees, particularly the psychological cost.
Emotional Labor: Psychological Stress in the Workplace
The stiff competition among organizations, especially service organizations, puts a lot of pressure on businesses to understand factors that can enable them to have a competitive advantage in the market (Lapointe et al ., 2012). Consequently, researchers realized that employees’ emotions play important role in customer service. It was realized that the expression of positive expressions by workers significantly contributes to the efficacy of a business, and it has high relations to customer satisfaction. Therefore, emotional labor is the process of managing emotions based on the organizational rules in order to be paid. It involves faking, inducing, suppressing or modifying emotions in order to come up with the appropriate emotion displays that are in line with the organization’s goals and objectives. The main objective of emotional labor in an organization is to influence the emotional state of customers in order to enhance customer satisfactions, which is important for the survival of any business. It is mainly common in jobs that require face-to-face interaction with customers.
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There are two main forms of emotional labor and they include surface acting and deep acting. Generally, surface acting refers to faking unfelt emotions while deep acting refers to the modification of emotions so that they appear genuine or an attempt to truly express the emotions that are required in the workplace (Lapointe et al ., 2012). Even though both forms of emotional labor can effectively be used to regulate emotions in the workplace, they are associated with different outcomes. According to Byrne, Morton, and Dahling (2011), since surface acting leads to a high sense of emotional dissonance, the conflict between what a person feels and express, it always lead to negative outcomes. This is because an employee will need a lot of effort in order to maintain the required emotional display. In the contrary, deep acting always leads to the positive outcome because an employee will not be struggling to maintain the required emotional display in the workplace. The two forms of emotional labor are used as compensatory strategies for employees who find it hard to express the required emotion displays in the workplace.
There are a number of factors that influence emotional labor in workplaces. Studies have shown that culture influences the effectiveness of emotional labor. For instance, employees from individualistic cultures view emotional expression as their right, and they will find it hard to regulate their emotions displays. In the contrary, workers from collectivist culture pay more attentions to groups over individuals, which enable them to effectively regulate their emotions to fit the required organizational rules (Allen, Diefendorff & Ma, 2014). In addition, religion and spirituality influence emotional labor in the workplace. Employees who are spiritual and religious have the tendency of assisting others, making them more effective in professions that require a lot of emotional labor than non-religious people (Byrne, Morton & Dahling, 2011). Therefore, culture and religion influence the effectiveness of emotional labor in the workplace.
Psychological Effects of Emotional Labor
Findings from a number of studies associate emotional labor with burnout or psychological stress (Allen, Diefendorff & Ma, 2014). Employees engaging in emotional labor are forced to sacrifice or control their feelings in order to meet the organizational goal and objectives. Consequently, they are forced to either express only positive feelings or hide their negative feelings. Continuous expression of emotional displays that are required by the organization at the expense of the individual’s true feelings leads to emotional feelings within an individual employee. Consequently, employees will find themselves experiencing emotional exhaustion and burnout. This can also cause a high level of stress among workers in the workplace. In response to the emotional conflict in daily interaction with customers, employees always feel emotionally drained, leading to a lot of psychological stress. Emotional exhaustion and burnout that are associated with emotional labor lead to depression, low self-esteem, and irritability.
However, it is employees who use surface acting strategy that is mostly affected psychologically by the emotional labor (Allen, Diefendorff & Ma, 2014). Due to the unresolved emotional dissonance, an employee using surface acting experience higher stress level than those using deep acting. Surface acting causes impaired self-evaluation and can lead to depression in the long run. Nevertheless, deep acting, to some extent, leads to psychological stress because the modification of individual’s emotions consumes a lot of cognitive and psychic energies. Therefore, both emotional labor strategies cause psychological stress among employees, which may also end up affecting the performance and productivity of an organization due to increased sick leaves and high turnover.
The participants in the interview included flight attendants, emergency workers, and nursing home workers. The researcher selected five participants from each group to participate in the interview. However, before the interview, every interviewee was informed of the objective of the research, and they were given the opportunity to decide whether to participate in the interview or not. In addition, the research sought the full consent of the participants, making the interview process ethical.
Based on the information from the interview, flight attendants have the highest burden of emotional labor compared to nursing home workers and emergency workers. In a scale of 1 to 10, they have the highest level of emotional labor at a rating of about 8.7. This was followed by nursing home workers and emergency workers at 7.7 and 7.2 respectively. Unlike other groups of workers, flight attendants are constantly required to regulate their emotions due to the extended and frequent interaction with customers.
In terms of job satisfaction, it is also flight attendants who are least satisfied with their work. In a scale of 1 to 10, the average rating for flight attendants based on job satisfaction was 5.6 compared to emergency and nursing home workers at 6.2 and 6.5 respectively. This shows that flight attendants are least satisfied with their jobs. However, they are the most satisfied with the workplace environment compared to the remaining two groups. Information from the interview revealed that emergency workers were the least satisfied with their workplace environment. This is mainly due to the unpleasant situations in emergency settings. One of the emergency workers said that: “We constantly deal with disgusting and revolting situations such as having direct contact with body fluid and secretions that are scary to many people.”
All the groups of employees are required to present themselves in a given way based on the nature of the workplace. For instance, one of the flight attendants who was interviewed admitted that they are required to always smile and show utmost kindness to customers. One of the flight attendants said that: “Our customers always take it for granted, but we are actually required to smile when offering services to them.” Emergency workers are also required by the organization rules not to be emotionally involved when arresting emergency situation. Even they are required to show some sympathy to their patients, they are not supposed to express sadness, disgust, powerlessness, and distress when attending to patients. Similar emotional behaviors are also required of nursing home workers. In addition, both emergency and nursing home workers are expected to encourage and support their patients.
All interviewees admitted that they suffer from psychological stress because of the need to fake emotional display to please customers and to adhere to organizations rules. Information from the interview revealed that flight attendants sometimes face hostile customers who may even abuse them. Unfortunately, they are not required to show any negative emotions towards the client. Emotional dissonance is the main cause of psychological stress among employees who were interviewed.
Summary and Conclusion
Emotional labor is inevitable in the modern business environment, particularly in the service industry. It is embraced by many organizations because it leads to quality customer service and customer satisfaction, giving the firm a competitive advantage. However, it has significant psychological effects on employees, as it causes burnout and emotional exhaustion mainly due emotional dissonance. Flight attendants, emergency workers, and nursing home workers are exposed to emotional labor, but the worst affected are flight attendants. In order to reduce the psychological stress associated with emotional labor, organizations should train employees on how to deal with emotional dissonance. At the same time, workers in emotional labor should be encouraged to use deep acting and not surface acting strategies in order to reduce psychological stress.
Allen, J. A., Diefendorff, J. M., & Ma, Y. (2014). Differences in emotional labor across cultures: A comparison of Chinese and US service workers. Journal of Business and Psychology , 29 (1), 21-35.
Byrne, C. J., Morton, D. M., & Dahling, J. J. (2011). Spirituality, religion, and emotional labor in the workplace. Journal of management, spirituality & religion , 8 (4), 299-315.
Lapointe, É., Morin, A. J., Courcy, F., Boilard, A., & Payette, D. (2012). Workplace affective commitment, emotional labor, and burnout: A multiple mediator models. International Journal of Business and Management , 7 (1), 3-21.