Emotional labour

Some jobs have more emotional content than others. This has led to the coining of the term “emotional labour” describing an aspect of all of our jobs where we deal with other people’s emotions.


While most job grading methodologies do not deal with emotional content – there seems to be a business case to say that although my work may not require high physical content – it may require high emotional content. It may mean that if you evaluated the emotional content of jobs that certain of your staff are underpaid – because they simply deal with the emotions related to your company, your products and your staff.


So ask yourself:

  • Do I have an emotional side to my job?
  • Is this emotional side part of what I am expected to do?
  • What plans, methods and strategies have I developed to deal with the emotional aspect of my job?
  • How often and how intense is the emotional conflicts that I have to deal with?
  • Am I sometimes fatigued or otherwise exhausted due to this labour?
  • What portion of my compensation is for this emotional content?
  • Do I experience conflict in my “personal” feelings vs. my “customer” feelings?


You are likely to find that you have more emotional labour in your job than you originally thought.


If you have ever ranted at a call centre you have created emotional labour and the call centre was in part responsible for responding to your emotions. The call centre agent could not turn around and call you unreasonable and they need to hide, move or other wise suspend their emotions into a pro-active space and channel it into results to ensure that the client vents and that the breakage in the system is fixed.


Frustration, anger, and humiliation – these are all common emotions that get processed in the service industry. The professional emotional labourer remains calm, positive and engaged in the process of resolving the complaints of even the most irate customer. On the extreme you may not even know what the customer wants at all (neither does the customer) and you may have to keep presenting different options until the customer issues are resolved. An effective emotional labourer needs to show a genuine concern for customer needs, smiling, and where possible making positive eye and voice contact and these all contribute to the customer’s perception of service quality. An effective emotional labourer does not take it personally and has great talents in forgiveness, compassion and caring.


Some people do not have what it takes to be an emotional labourer and cannot face angry clients, or people who are generally unpleasant, deceptive or manipulative. Master emotional labourers know how to deal with each of these classes of emotional clients and can achieve outcomes for the business that is in line with service parameters. And it may contrary to popular belief not always be to please the customer – but sometimes it requires us to know where to draw the line and let the other party realise the nature of the challenge.


When you continually need to show only those emotions that are appropriate for the job, despite how you really feel, this can often lead to emotional conflict between your real emotions and those you show to others. This conflict can be registered as fatigue, disengagement and uncharacteristic responses in normal situations. The emotional worker can become exhausted and burn-out in a different way to a person that has high physical content in their job. Research findings seem to indicate that higher levels of stress and disassociation with close personal relationships can be quite common. It seems that the type of person that is generally more cheerful and pleasant is able to turn negative emotions around more easily than others but mechanisms such as job-rotation and other emotion free breaks are critical to keep high engagement employees motivated and focused.


It also does not help to use facts and to be data driven in most situations. Emotions are seldom factual and it is often better to pretend that someone made you think – rather than really letting someone think. By using logic to get out of emotional situations – you are generally labelled as insensitive, brutal and unkind.


A general social intelligence is a key determinant in the success of the emotional employee – if the person is able to interact and relate with people and do they have an emotional vocabulary that allows for expression, action and reaction to emotional situations.


Companies are strangely ignorant of the discipline of emotional labour and this can be witnessed by the lack of training programmes that deal with emotional intelligence. The specific focus on how to deal with complex emotional situations seems to be part of areas of psychology, coaching and not part of the general management curriculum. Often the whole issue of emotional labour gets side-lined into the area of service orientation to external customers although this area has much wider application and is relevant to colleagues and internal clients as well. As such the company can look at mechanisms to recognise, support and reward emotional labour more effectively. The reality is that this discipline effects every area of the organisation and that companies that effectively manage emotional labour would have higher returns than companies that do not.


For an organisation it is important to examining the role of emotional labour in different positions and to factor this into the recruitment, performance management and staff retention plan. Very few performance schemes looks at how well you have dealt with clients and rate the emotional performance of the employee. It is feasible that measures can be developed for this however and it can account for some of the aspects that seem to be missing from traditional performance management approaches.


Specific policies and actions introduce emotional labour. We have seen this from maxims such as ‘The customer is always right,’ or ‘Always greet customers with a smile.’ And ‘Make sure you notice and make positive eye contact with any person that is within 1.5 metres from your current position’. Expecting people to work in teams and show positive team behaviours with their colleagues, adds another element of emotional labour. For some people, having a high values content in the daily operations of the business causes emotional labour.


Many companies use “buffering” to shield the business from direct emotional labour. This is done through call centres and other mechanisms where you do not deal with the problems directly but through using scripts, standard “house” responses and limited pathways to resolution. Any “escalations” or non-standard issues can then be managed in by the back-office where the emotional content of the situation has already been filtered or gets presented as statistics and issues.


Apart from teaching emotional intelligence to staff, two additional systemic ways of dealing with emotional responses is to teach problem-solving techniques. The aim is then to move workers beyond using scripts or relying on other “house” rules and teach people how to act effectively in their scope of control. This helps people build confidence, and reduce their negative reactions to angry or unpredictable situations. This then reduces anxiety because there is the ability to deal with the issue. The second is to create effective ways to share knowledge. Success stories, practical processes and socialisation of complex situations lead to higher resolution rates and allows staff to deal with the impact of emotional conflict.


If all else fails – it is always important to make counselling services available to staff.




We assume that most people want to be authentic. However – at the coal face when people are negotiating or demanding service there is usually a range of emotions that get generated for which the emotional labourer needs to find the right ways and strategies to manage the situation to a positive outcome for the business, the customer and the emotional labourer. If we become cognisant of emotional labour and we become much better at it – it may redefine our ability to act in organisations.