Maintaining a calm and pleasant demeanour with customers, clients and colleagues can be hard work, and at those times when we don’t feel calm and pleasant, it can be downright exhausting.

For many of us, being able to maintain a level of control over who we interact with, and how or when, is helpful. But what if you are in a role where you are required to be nice to people all the time? How do you keep your energy levels up and your professionalism intact when people are difficult, angry and rude?  Or even when others are just slow, and you feel as though they are wasting precious time in your busy day.

This drain on energy levels from dealing with people is known as “emotional labour”.

Author Susan David describes it as the “effort it takes to keep your professional game face on when what you’re doing is not concordant with how you feel”.

The mismatch between how we might feel (frustrated, enraged, exhausted) and the demeanour we need to show (calm, interested, patient) can be exacerbated for people in roles where they need to show emotions or behaviour that are in line with organisational or professional codes of conduct. For example, always smile when greeting a customer. Always say thank you, even after a customer has been outright rude to you.  This mismatch creates emotional dissonance and requires significant mental and emotional effort.

Scientific research has found, that consciousor deliberate emotion regulation (I feel like I want to shout at you but I nod calmly instead) requires more effort than spontaneousemotional behaviours. In particular, “surface acting” or the showing of “fake” emotion (This customer is frustrating but I have to be nice) is more mentally taxing and creates more emotional exhaustion. In contrast, “deep acting” – being able to show genuine emotion in line with our personal values – requires less effort and therefore creates less exhaustion (This customer is frustrating but it’s important to me to try and help her).

This may mean it is helpful and necessary to have more conversations and flexibility about what emotional “rules” are helpful in workplaces, particularly when dealing with customers.

Several decades of research have shown that, as well as creating emotional dissonance and exhaustion, emotional labour also impacts on our health and job performance. Highlighted adverse health outcomes include insomnia, loss of memory, depersonalisation, hypertension, heart disease and burnout.

From the performance angle, maintaining your “game face” can create an additional attention demand that detracts from your ability to do a task well.  When our cognitive resource is drained by emotional energy, it is more likely we will make mistakes, take longer to complete tasks, produce reduced quality outputs or be more rigid in how we undertake activities. Higher levels of emotional exhaustion have also been linked with lower job satisfaction.

In summary, emotional labour produces emotional exhaustion that results in diminished wellbeing and poorer performance. Neither is good for people or organisations!

Let’s look then at some positive actions we can take to improve this.


Feeling it on the job – reducing the cost of emotional labour

Given the importance of service roles, and the necessity to protect the wellbeing of people who work in them, what can we do to reduce the negative impact of emotional labour?

For organisations, creating a culture of psychological safety where employees can authentically express genuine emotions, both positive and negative, is critical for emotional labour to be managed successfully.

In particular, fostering a workplace environment where employees regularly experience positive emotions like pride, satisfaction, connection and achievement will help to facilitate the spontaneous “deep acting” of empathy, compassion and patience with customers and less emotional fatigue for employees. Providing employees with high job resources – control, autonomy and self-efficacy – also makes this deep acting more likely.

Robust role selection processes to ensure a good job “fit” between individual personality style and the emotional labour demands of particular roles are also imperative. This fit also needs to include discussions about expectations of the emotional “rules” for specific roles.

Then, ideally for all employees, or at minimum for those in customer roles, provide and support training in effective emotion coping strategies, to make sure your people have the skills they need to cope. With emotionally demanding roles, regular professional supervision or access to other safe support networks need to be provided. Ensure that making use of support is recognised as one of the tasks of the role, not an add-on, and properly resourced.

Recruiting and retaining highly skilled people leaders is also an integral part of maintaining the psychological safety necessary for managing emotional labour. We want people leaders to be able to skilfully:

  1. Validate that emotional labour is real– to encourage conversations about emotions and the emotional impact of work roles and tasks, to talk with teams about emotion drains, and encourage people to share their experiences of what helps.
  2. Prioritise and schedule recovery times– ensure people are taking regular breaks for good mental and emotional recovery. A good rule of thumb is – the greater the emotional drain of the role, the more recovery is likely to be needed.
  3. Support people to actively use effective emotion coping strategies:
  • notice and name the emotion (naming reduces emotional intensity)
  • express the emotion – putting the feelings into words (either verbally by telling someone when appropriate or by writing)
  • use active distraction when the emotion may be overwhelming (a team quiz or an opportunity to focus on a different work task)
  • practise cognitive reappraisal– reframing or reinterpreting an event in order to alter its emotional impact achieves less negative emotion and lowers stress arousal (I did the best I could with that call, the customer was tricky).
  1. Foster positive emotional experiences for teams– celebrate successes, give praise and acknowledgement, show appreciation and gratitude for effort as well as work done well.