The Mental Cost of Emotional Labor

“The research is pretty clear that surface acting is almost always bad for you."

Unsplash / Hanson Lu

Let’s be real: Putting in the emotional effort to make certain situations work can make you want to lie under the most accessible duvet ASAP. Culturally, this phenomenon has been linked to the concept of emotional labor, and while that’s a twist on the academic definition, there’s a reason they’ve been mixed. Putting out feelings you don’t actually feel is a job unto itself. That’s compounded when you’re doing it at work.

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Sociologist Arlie Russell Hoschild, Ph.D. presented the phrase “emotional labor” in her 1983 book, The Managed Heart, and there it specifically referred to regulating or managing emotional expressions with others as part of one’s job. Classic examples of individuals who have to perform emotional labor include caregivers, restaurant servers, and flight attendants. Each is expected to present emotionally in a specific way, and doing so means they are conforming to work role requirements.

Psychology professor Alicia Grandey, Ph.D., points out on her lab’s site that emotional labor is different than emotional work, which involves managing emotions to maintain personal goals and relationships — that’s keeping everyone at the family party happy for the sake of the group, even if you’re not having a great time. That’s essentially what writer Gemma Hartley defines as emotional labor in her book “Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward.” There she writes:

Emotional labor, as I define it, is emotion management and life management combined. It is the unpaid, invisible work we do to keep those around us comfortable and happy.

And while Hoschild told The Atlantic she doesn’t approve of her phrasing becoming misconstrued, there’s space for all of us to learn from the research that’s been conducted.

There are two strategies that employees utilize to regulate their emotions, and in turn, perform emotional labor. These include “individual deep acting” and “individual surface acting.” William Becker, Ph.D., a Virginia Tech professor who’s studied emotional labor explains to me that surface acting goes back to the idea of “fake it ‘til you make it.” It’s suppressing your emotions and outwardly projecting something else, even if you haven’t changed what you feel.

Service employees, like a waiter, are often required by the job to provide emotional labor. 

Unsplash / Steven Cleghorn

Meanwhile, deep acting is attempting to change our emotions in an effort to get them in line with what one is supposed to be expressing. Becker gives this scenario: You have an employee, and you’re pretty annoyed with them during a feedback session. If you were going to surface act, you would just smile and pretend that everything is fine. Meanwhile, if you wanted to engage deep acting, you could choose empathy and take a moment to think about how the employee is feeling. The comradery that the work handbook requires would be real because you’ve made that effort to be kind.

“The research is pretty clear that surface acting is almost always bad for you, because you’re still holding those emotions inside and, it turns out, it’s usually very likely that the other person actually knows how you’re truly feeling anyways,” Becker says. “Deep acting has shown some mixed findings. It can be very rewarding to display genuine emotion. But you can also end up getting emotionally exhausted.”

This is especially true if you’re at an organization that doesn’t reward you for your efforts, if you’re on a team where you’re the only one that’s putting in the time to be sincere, or if you’re in a coworker situation where everyone puts their feelings on you. Grandey’s lab has found that emotional labor, like physical labor, can be tiring when it’s done all day. In turn, that can result in burnout, performance efforts, and more anxiety at home.

What can be done to help your brain if you’re in a position where emotional labor is required? If you’re in a front-facing job that deals with customers, Grandey recommends making sure you stay “real” with your coworkers. Often times, emotional laborers experience a pressure to identify as their service role, and it’s important to take a break from that, identify your own feelings, and reduce the strain of the job.

It also helps if the job contains people who are interested in more than a workplace’s “cognitive culture” — elements like teamwork, results-orientation, and innovation. In a 2014 study published in Management Papers, researchers found that workplaces that prioritize “compassionate love” have employees that are more engaged, more satisfied, and showed up more. In a workplace with a caring culture, employees feel free to express how they really feel and comfortable lending a sympathetic ear to others.

In other words, it’s what we seek in our personal lives as well. It’s okay to give emotion and feel an emotion — without the process becoming laborious.

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