The term ‘emotional labour’ was created by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, to describe work that requires you to display certain emotions, as a part of your job (1). These jobs tend to involve direct contact with other people, whether it’s face to face or over the phone. Amongst these jobs, are ‘nannies, child care workers, aged care workers, nurses, teachers, therapists, bill collectors, police officers, workers in call centers’.
If your job involves emotional labour, you may find that you regularly need to suppress your real emotions and express emotions that you don’t really feel, in order to convey the ‘correct’ emotions for your role. This is because the ‘correct’ displays of emotion, may significantly impact relevant performance outcomes, for example customer service ratings, profits, community satisfaction or crime rates.
Emotional labour is good if…
All is well and good if your real feelings align with those you are required to display. For example, if you feel positive and a smile comes naturally as you speak with customers. Or if you truly believe that the large fine you just issued someone, was fair and justified.
But not so good if…
However, human emotions fluctuate and it is normal to feel the full range of emotions. If your work involves emotional labour, there may be times when your true emotions and the emotions you are expected to display, are a mismatch. In order to meet your job requirements, you may resort to one of two common types of ‘‘acting skills’’.
Deep Acting – which involves consciously shifting into a particular emotional state, to sincerely feel the emotions you are required to display. For example, the department store employee, who told me that he strategically greeted customers by smiling and cheerfully saying ‘‘Welcome, customers. Welcome!’’ because this genuinely made him feel cheerful.
Surface Acting – which involves displaying emotions for the sake of the job, which are in contrast to the emotions you actually feel. For example, telling a customer over the phone that of course they are highly valued, then hitting the mute button and calling them a swear word to a co-worker (Cresswell)(4), or suppressing your real feelings altogether.
How Surface Acting At Work Affects Your Home Life
A study of 78 bus drivers, published in the journal of Personnel Psychology, looked at how regular surface acting at work, impacted employees after they left work and went home (2).
The results of the study indicated that employees who engaged in regular surface acting were more likely to experience state anxiety, at the end of a workday. Surface acting had a significant indirect effect on emotional exhaustion at the end of a work shift, via anxiety.
Surface acting was also found to increase family conflict at home, in the evening.
The strain of coming home from work feeling stressed, irritated or exhausted, affects how you can relate to the people in your household and perform your roles. For example, you may have the best intentions to help a family member with homework, but by the time you get home, you may feel that you are completely drained of energy.
Surface acting was also found to impact sleep quality and was linked with insomnia.
Stress outcomes also affect work outcomes, including voluntary turnover, job satisfaction and injuries.
Practical Ideas to Boost Wellbeing at Work and Beyond
The bus drivers study suggests that if you are involved in high levels of surface acting, you should engage in recovery activities such as relaxation and exercise after work, or during work breaks, to reduce the impact of stress at work on your home life.
How Laughter Wellness Can Improve Wellbeing
The EPR Model (created by Merv Neal), illustrates how emotions carry over from work to home as well as from home to work, and how laughter interventions such as Laughter Wellness can be used as an effective and low-cost circuit breaker to break the cycle of negativity and regain a strong emotional balance.
Let’s look at the beginning of the work day.
Emotions – Whatever precedes your arrival at work, including your quality of sleep, family interactions and your journey, will affect your emotional state, as you start your work day. You could rank how you feel on a scale of 1-10, where 1 is the lowest and 10 is the highest, if you’d like to self-assess how you feel, at the start of your work day.
Perception – Your emotions will affect your perception and your attitude. If you are feeling positive, you are more likely to have clear, productive thoughts.
Reaction – Your emotions and perceptions will affect what you do and ultimately, your work outcomes. Positive feelings and thoughts will have a positive impact on your work, relationships and productivity.
Similarly, what you experience during the workday is likely to carry over into your home life and affect your emotions, perceptions and reactions at home. This can impact your holistic wellbeing, including your physical, mental, social and emotional health.
Research shows (3) that laughter:
- Reduces cortisol (stress hormone) levels in the body, making you feel calmer and more relaxed.
- Releases a range of ‘feel good’ hormones, including endorphins, serotonin and dopamine, boosting mood and feelings of positivity.
- Reduces pain, as endorphins are your body’s natural pain killers.
- Increases energy levels, as laughter increases the supply of oxygen to the cells of the brain and body.
- Strengthens the immune system, which is at risk of becoming weaker under stress.
This is a desirable state to start or end your workday, so that you are refreshed, rejuvenated and ready to live fully in the moment!
Are you involved in emotional labour? Feel free to share your thoughts, experiences and practical tips in the comments below.
- Emotional Labor around the World: An Interview with Arlie Hochschild’, Global Dialogue, Volume 4, Issue 3
- Wagner D T, Barnes C M, Scott B A 2013, ‘Driving It Home: How Workplace Emotional Labour Harms Employee Home Life’ , Personnel Psychology, vol. 00, pp. 1-30
- The science of laughter
- Cresswell N, ’22 Problems Only Call Workers Will Understand’, What Culture
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