When employees regulate their emotions in order to display the emotions that are expected of them in workplace interactions, they are performing emotional labor. They may do this by suppressing or hiding their real feelings and, instead, expressing emotions that they do not actually feel, that is, surface acting. Surface acting involves putting on an “emotional mask” and creating a sense of emotional dissonance, a feeling of discrepancy between felt and expressed emotions. Employees may also express the socially expected emotions by working to actually feel the emotions they need to express, that is, deep acting. For example, in a customer service situation that requires pleasantness, they might try to generate the necessary emotions by thinking about how they feel when they are with friends. Thus, in contrast with surface acting’s focus on external displays, deep acting’s focus is primarily on creating inner feelings that are aligned with appropriate external displays. Employees may also simply express their genuine emotions in workplace interactions. If these emotions don’t fit with situational requirements and expectations, employees may be engaging in emotional deviance.
Occupations can generally be classified on the basis of their need for physical, mental, and emotional labor. The extent and nature of the emotional labor performed by employees may depend on the norms that exist for emotional expression and suppression in a particular occupation. For example, although grocery store clerks are expected to be friendly and cheerful, funeral directors are expected to be somber and reflective. Also, occupations in which employees express a variety of emotions with high intensity in frequent interpersonal interactions of lengthy duration are most likely to involve high levels of emotional labor. Although emotional labor tends to be associated with service occupations in which there are frequent interactions with customers, it is likely that employees in all occupations perform some amount of emotional labor. For example, research indicates that workers in a wide range of occupations, such as program managers, secretaries, nurses, and golf course maintenance workers, report that they regulate the emotions they display to others.
In addition to these situational predictors, there may be individual differences in how emotional labor is performed. For example, research indicates that workers who hold collectivist values are more likely than those with individualistic values to perform deep acting and hide their feelings. Also, workers who easily adapt their behaviors according to the demands of the external environment (i.e., high self-monitoring) and workers who tend to experience sadness and low levels of energy (i.e., high negative affectivity) tend to engage in high levels of surface acting. Interestingly, the ability to manage emotions in oneself and others, two elements of emotional intelligence, tend to predict higher levels of surface acting but are unrelated to deep acting.
Since emotional labor has been conceptualized in a variety of ways, a multitude of measures of emotional labor also exist. For example, it has been measured by considering (a) the result of dichotomizing occupational categories into high- and low-emotional-labor jobs; (b) the emotional tone of occupations; (c) the emotional requirements of occupations, such as the frequency of emotional display; (d) the emotional dissonance associated with surface acting; and (e) the emotional regulation involved in surface and deep acting. A growing number of researchers appear to be adopting the emotional regulation perspective of emotional labor.
Initially, researchers assumed that performing emotional labor was universally draining and alienating for employees and a cause of burnout. However, research suggests that the way in which emotional labor is performed influences its effects on employees. Employees who express emotions that they do not really feel (i.e., surface acting) tend to experience a lack of authenticity and, as a result, report high levels of emotional exhaustion. In contrast, employees who try to align their felt and expressed emotions through deep acting tend to feel a sense of authenticity and, consequently, relatively low levels of emotional exhaustion and high levels of personal accomplishment. Surface acting has also been associated with reduced levels of job satisfaction and higher turnover levels. Researchers have found that emotions can be passed from one person to another, such that, for example, customers feel enthusiastic as a result of being served by enthusiastic salespeople. However, there is still little research that considers the relationship between the way in which emotional labor is performed (i.e., surface or deep acting) and customer emotions, attitudes, and behaviors.
The concept of emotional labor has implications for career development. In particular, when considering alternative career directions, individuals are advised to select occupations that require emotional displays that fit with their emotional temperaments. For example, an individual with a tendency to be bubbly, friendly, and enthusiastic is more likely to be able to express genuine emotions as a flight attendant than as a bill collector. This is important, since a mismatch may require more effort on the part of employees to display the required emotions and result in feelings of emotional exhaustion. Employers should be mindful of applicants’ emotional temperaments and other relevant personality characteristics during the process of selecting employees. They should try to hire employees whose emotional temperaments match the job requirements. This means that employers should develop a thorough understanding of the emotional tone and requirements of occupations. Employers may also want to provide employee training and performance feedback that helps employees learn how to perform emotional labor in a way that does not have detrimental effects on their health.
- Ashforth, B. E. and Humphrey, R. H. 1993. “Emotional Labor in Service Roles: The Influence of Identity.” Academy of Management Review 18:88-115.
- Bono, J. E. and Vey, M. A. Forthcoming. “Toward Understanding Emotional Management at Work: A Quantitative Review of Emotional Labor Research.” In Understanding Emotions in Organizational Behavior, edited by N. Ashkanasy and C. Hartel. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Brotheridge, C. M. and Lee, R. T. 2003. “Development and Validation of the Emotional Labour Scale.” Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology 76:365-379.
- Hochschild, A. R. 1983. The Managed Heart: Commercialisation of Human Feeling. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Morris, J. A. and Feldman, D. C. 1996. “The Dimensions, Antecedents, and Consequences of Emotional Labor.” Academy of Management Review 21:986-1010.
- Totterdell, P. and Holman, D. 2003. “Emotion Regulation in Customer Service Roles: Testing a Model of Emotional Labor.” Journal of Occupational Health Psychology 8:55-73.