Do you work in a customer-facing role?

Does your job require that you keep your emotions in check?

Do you feel emotionally exhausted at the end of the day or your shift?

If so, then our recent post may have resonated with you:

This experience of emotional labour, what author Susan David describes as the “effort it takes to keep your professional game face on when what you’re doing is not concordant with how you feel” can impact both your health and your job performance, since the effort of controlling and masking your true feelings is mentally and physically draining.

If you are working in a job with this kind of emotional drain, here are six proactive things you can do to reduce the impact:

1. Acknowledge your emotional experiences at work

  • Emotion labour is real, and unfortunately unavoidable in many roles. Have conversations with colleagues and your team manager about the emotional impact of your work and how they can support you. Ask others to share their experiences of what helps, and buddy up to try out strategies.
  • Let your family and friends know how best they can help, particularly after a work day or shifts that are more demanding – this could be as simple as giving you some time alone before you rejoin the family.
  • Access regular professional supervision or other professional support networks. Ideally, this support will provide an opportunity for you to honestly check in about how you are finding your role, what you are struggling with, and to discuss ideas for what will help you most. Sometimes these ideas can be role-specific skill development, but at other times they may be much more about how you look after yourself in the face of challenges. See this support as a key enabler of your role, not just a “nice to have”. 


2. Name the emotions you are experiencing

When we label an emotion, our brain activates our emotion regulation centre, in turn dialling down the intensity of the emotion. This labelling could be to yourself in your head, or you can get creative – try writing on a doodle page while speaking on the phone or using an emotion label card. Teams that have high customer-facing roles can also do this collaboratively, for example having an emotion board where team members can pin their name under the appropriate emotion. 


3. Use effective tools for managing strong emotions

After you have noticed and named the emotion you are feeling, it is helpful to have a number of ways to regulate the intensity of the emotion. Try these:

  • Express the emotion – putting the feelings into words, either verbally by telling someone when it’s appropriate, or by writing it down.
  • Use active distraction (something to take your mind elsewhere) when the emotion may be overwhelming. This distraction could be as simple as pushing your feet into the floor and noticing the sensations of tension in your legs, or looking around the room and noticing three or four things that you can see, hear, or touch around you.
  • Practise cognitive reappraisal. How we think has a big impact on how we feel and how we respond, so naturally our thoughts contribute to our emotional labour. Tune in to your thoughts when you are feeling overwhelmed, or when you have some down-time to reflect soon after, to see if you can adjust those thoughts to be more helpful. For example, depersonalising a situation can reduce our sense of overload, so instead of, “This person is angry with me”, try “This person is upset, that’s why they are shouting”.


4. Foster positive emotions

Regularly experiencing positive emotions like pride, satisfaction, hope and joy helps us to recover from the impact of negative emotions, boosts the ability of our brain to respond in innovative and flexible ways (to come up with better ways of doing things), and helps to create strong connections with other people that are also rejuvenating. Regular boosts of positive emotions also help create more spontaneous moments of empathy, compassion and patience with customers and therefore less emotional fatigue for ourselves.

How can you experience more positive emotion at work?

  • Pay attention to and celebrate all your successes, achievements and small “wins”. Acknowledge your efforts as well – for example, I worked hard to stay calm with that customer, I stayed patient even though she asked the same question five times.
  • Visualise something positive – your last holiday or a loved one. Our brain-body connection is particularly strong, and purely bringing a mental image to mind can have similar effects as actually experiencing positive events.
  • Create moments of fun throughout the working day. For example, doing a daily quiz together, having a team bloopers reel at the end of the day, or sharing morning teas, all foster bursts of positive emotion.


5. Prioritise and schedule recovery

  • Make sure that you take regular breaks to ensure good mental and emotional recovery. Experiment with different types of recovery to find out what works best for you. You could try:
    • Physical: something active or some form of relaxation (e.g., slow breathing, or muscle relaxation)
    • Mental: switching the type of task – mix it up or do something non-people-related if you can
    • Emotional: do or think of something fun or pleasurable to give yourself a boost.
  • Come up with a plan for “transition time” – what helps you to switch gears between finishing work and going into your personal time? This transition might be listening to your favourite music on your drive home, spending some time doing a hobby, being with your favourite people, getting active or outdoors, or meditation. Ironically, it may feel that you don’t have energy for these things after a hard day, so recruit support, make it a daily habit, or just “do it anyway”.

A good rule of thumb to follow is – the greater the emotional drain in your job, the more recovery you are likely to need. Larger chunks of recovery – days off and holidays – are also key.


6. Stay connected to your purpose and meaning

Checking in with why you do what you do, reminding yourself of that and of the value you place on your job or career will help to buffer you from emotional drain, and help you hold the big picture:

  • with your job – what makes it important to you and how do you gain a sense of achievement and satisfaction in this role? Are there development opportunities that can enhance this purpose or goals you can set yourself?
  • in your life – how does this role connect you to your life purpose and meaning?

Some of these strategies will resonate with you more than others and some will seem easier to put into practice in your particular working environment. We recommend experimenting with as many of the actions as you can, so that over time you can add to your toolkit and have options as to which ones are most effective for different situations.