The cost of emotional labour

By Dr Anya Johnson and Dr Helena Nguyen
Location: Sydney, Australia

We often think of ‘work’ in terms of the practical tasks we undertake, but what about the emotional labour that comes with our jobs? New research shows just how damaging it can be to ‘put on a brave face’ at work.

In Australia, as in other industrialised countries, the economy is dominated by the service industry, representing more than 70 percent of Australia’s gross domestic product and employing more than 80 percent of the workforce. This industry is fundamentally based on the interactions between service providers and consumers, and at the heart of these interactions is the service providers’ management of emotions: both their own and their users. Essentially, emotion management is necessary for workers to stay engaged and committed to their work.

Yet, academics Dr Anya Johnson and Dr Helena Nguyen have found that ‘putting on a brave face’ comes at a cost, especially for workers who use the coping strategy of covering over a real emotion with an appropriate expression for the professional setting – referred to as ‘surface acting’. This behaviour is a form of pretending and it drains important psychological resources that normally help people feel attached to their workplace.

While there have been many studies looking at emotional labour in call centres and within the retail and hospitality industries, the importance of emotional labour in healthcare has only been recognised more recently.

Dr Helena Nguyen and Dr Anya Johnson

Dr Johnson and Dr Nguyen’s work focuses on the process and impact of emotional labour on health professionals and their patients. After more than 15 years of collaborating with health professionals at hospitals across Sydney, they found that health professionals often describe their work in terms of the practical tasks they undertake (physical labour), and the decisions they make (cognitive labour), neglecting the emotional labour required to manage feelings at work. Yet there are strong expectations about how health professionals should interact with patients. These ‘emotional display rules’ are implicit requirements for health professionals to treat patients with care, compassion and acceptance, as well as helping patients feel safe and calm by being reassuring and positive. While healthcare professionals are very motivated and have a strong desire to live up to this ‘ideal’, their heavy workloads, the challenge of dealing with difficult or abusive patients, and other stressors, may rob them of emotionally authentic responses and increase the emotional labour needed to perform their roles.

Two strategies are most often used to deal with emotional dissonance or the discomfort that emotional labour creates. The first is changing one’s public emotional display to match requirements, while privately experiencing a different emotion – the aforementioned surface acting. The second strategy is reframing the situation, maybe by putting oneself in another person’s shoes and attempting to feel the emotion one wishes to display – known as deep acting.

The results of these strategies are clear. Anya and Helena, along with their colleague Professor Markus Groth from the UNSW Business School, have found that health professionals who engage in more surface acting report more negative outcomes, including lower job satisfaction, poorer performance, higher rates of burnout and significantly more sick leave.

In contrast, health professionals who engage in other types of emotion management, such as deep acting, report better outcomes such as more proactive patient care and commitment to their organisations, although they also report high levels of burnout, as all types of emotion regulation requires resources.

Helena and Anya’s research aims to deepen the understanding of how employers and employees can manage emotions – both their own and others, to explore ways in which healthcare and service industries in general can improve outcomes for their service users without draining the emotional resources of the providers. To grow the service sector and deliver effective outcomes, we need to find ways to design work and teams that support rather than undermine employee wellbeing.

Tips for managing emotions in the workplace

  • Recognise when you are using surface acting as a strategy. It can be helpful in the short term – particularly if you are confident in your ability to display the appropriate emotions – but should not be used a long-term solution. Strategies with better results include deep acting, reframing and perspective-taking to align your emotions to the situation.
  • Take advantage of opportunities to develop emotion-management skills, through courses such as mindfulness.
  • Ensure you have opportunities for emotional recovery during work by taking scheduled breaks, time out, or mental health days, and by seeking social support from a trusted colleague or supervisor.
  • After work, replenish your psychological resources: go to the gym, play a sport, or seek social support from family and friends.
Anya Johnson

Dr Anya Johnson

Anya is a Senior Lecturer in Work and Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney Business School. Her work specialises in the area of communication in the workplace, organisational change and development and career management.

Helena Nguyen

Dr Helena Nguyen

Helena is is a Senior Lecturer in Work and Organisational Studies and co-director of the Body, Heart and Mind in Business Research Group at the University of Sydney Business School. Her research include the emotions and cognition at work, human performance, work engagement and well-being.