Emotional Labor

Smile mask syndrome

Emotional labor is the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfill the emotional requirements of a job. More specifically, workers are expected to regulate their emotions during interactions with customers, co-workers, and superiors.

This includes analysis and decision making in terms of the expression of emotion, whether actually felt or not, as well as its opposite: the suppression of emotions that are felt but not expressed. As nations move from manufacturing to service-based economies, more workers in a variety of occupational fields are expected to manage their emotions according to employer demands.

Roles that have been identified as requiring emotional labor include but are not limited to Mother/Wife, those involved in public administration (especially the palace intrigues of a ruling body, these being an eternal literary theme), guarded professions of secrecy (such as espionage, national security, military intelligence, psychiatry, clerisy, and law), flight attendant, daycare worker, nursing home worker, nurse, doctor, store clerk, call center worker, teacher, librarian, social worker; most roles in a hotel, motel, tavern, bar, pub, and restaurant; and jobs in the media, such as television and radio.

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild provided the first definition of emotional labor, which is a form of emotion regulation that creates a publicly visible facial and bodily display within the workplace. The related term ’emotion work’ (also called ’emotion management’) refers to ‘these same acts done in a private context,’ such as within the private sphere of one’s home or interactions with family and friends. Hochschild identified three emotion regulation strategies: cognitive, bodily, and expressive.

Within cognitive emotion work, one attempts to change images, ideas, or thoughts in hopes of changing the feelings associated with them. For example, one may associate a family picture with feeling happy and think about said picture whenever attempting to feel happy. Within bodily emotion work, one attempts to change physical symptoms in order to create a desired emotion. For example, one may attempt deep breathing in order to reduce anger. Within expressive emotion work, one attempts to change expressive gestures to change inner feelings. For example, one may attempt to smile when trying to feel happy. One becomes aware of emotion work most often when one’s feelings do not fit the situation. For instance, when one does not feel sad at a funeral, one becomes acutely aware of the feelings appropriate for that situation.

While emotion work happens within the private sphere, emotional labor is emotion management within the workplace according to employer expectations. Jobs involving emotional labor are defined as those that: require face-to-face or voice-to-voice contact with the public; require the worker to produce an emotional state in another person; and allow the employer, through training and supervision, to exercise a degree of control over the emotional activities of employees. Within this commodification process, service workers are estranged from their own feelings in the workplace.

Researchers have focused on ‘surface acting’ and ‘deep acting’ as the primary strategies that employees use to regulate their emotions. Surface acting involves a ‘faking’ process through which outward expressions are altered, yet internal feelings are left intact. Conversely, deep acting is an effortful process through which employees change their internal feelings to align with organizational expectations, producing more natural and genuine emotional displays. Although the underlying regulatory processes involved in each approach differ, the objective of both, is typically to show positive emotions, which are presumed to impact the feelings of customers and bottom-line outcomes (e.g., sales, positive recommendations, and repeat business). However, research generally has found surface acting to be more consistently problematic for employee well-being than deep acting.

In 1991, an in-depth qualitative study of bill collectors at a collection agency found that unlike jobs where employees need to act cheerful and concerned, bill collectors are selected and socialized to show irritation to most debtors. Specifically, collection agencies hire agents who seemed to be easily aroused. As they work, they are closely monitored by their supervisors to make sure that they frequently convey urgency to debtors. Bill collectors’ emotional labor consists of not letting angry and hostile debtors make them angry and to not feel guilty about pressuring friendly debtors for money. They cope with angry debtors by publicly showing their anger or making jokes when they get off the phone. They minimize the guilt they feel by staying emotionally detached from the debtors.

A study of waitresses in Philadelphia examined how these workers assert control and protect their self identity during interactions with customers. Restaurant workers’ subordination to customers is reinforced through ‘cultural symbols that originate from deeply rooted assumptions about service work.’ Because the waitresses were not strictly regulated by their employers, waitresses’ interactions with customers were controlled by the waitresses themselves. Although they are stigmatized by the stereotypes and assumptions of servitude surrounding restaurant work, the waitresses studied were not negatively affected by their interactions. To the contrary, they viewed their ability to manage their emotions as a valuable skill that could be used to gain control over customers. Thus, the Philadelphia waitresses took advantage of the lack of employer-regulated emotional labor in order to avoid the potentially negative consequences of emotional labor.

Empathy is widely believed to be important in physicians’ interactions with their patients because, despite advancement in medical technology, the interpersonal relationship between physicians and patients remains essential to quality healthcare. However, physicians consider empathy a form of emotional labor. Police work also involves substantial amounts of emotional labor by officers, who must control their own facial and bodily displays of emotion in the presence of other officers and citizens. Although policing is often viewed as a stereotypically masculine occupation that focuses on fighting crime, policing also requires officers to maintain order and provide a variety of interpersonal services. For example, police must have a commanding presence that allows them to act decisively and maintain control in unpredictable situations while having the ability to actively listen and talk to citizens. A police officer who displays too much anger, sympathy, or other emotion while dealing with danger on the job will be viewed by other officers as someone unable to withstand the pressures of the job, due to the sexist views of many police officers.

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