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However much you love what you do, if your job involves working with people, you’ll understand the concept of emotional labour. Perhaps you’re a figurehead and it’s important to build rapport and maintain your cool even in difficult circumstances that would send the rest of us running? Maybe your role involves managing other people’s emotions and it’s not always pretty? Or if you’re the first point of contact for a business, it’s possible you’ll be on the receiving end of frustration, disappointment and rancour.

Are you able to answer ‘Yes’ to the following questions;

Do you feel that you have to paint on a smile for work?

Does your role demand that you hide your true feelings?

Are your emotions controlled by organisational procedures?

Do you frequently have to conjure the appearance of an emotion that you don’t feel?

Do you sometimes identify a conflict between what you really feel and what you believe is a more ‘appropriate’ reaction to events?

If you’re nodding your head in recognition, then you’re involved in emotional labour.

What is it?

Emotional labour is any workplace situation where you are required to manage your feelings in accordance with the rules and guidelines of your business. Saying what you really think is usually off the menu.

What’s the impact?

Researchers at Toronto University studied parents attempting to hide their feelings from their children. The parents were asked to present a positive disposition than they felt. The result? Unhappy parents who felt less positive and enthusiastic about themselves than the control group.

Researchers at Stanford University into the impact of negative emotion suppression and positive emotion application – that’s smiling when you’re scramming on the inside to you and me, found the following;

  1. Working memory suffers at the time of suppression. We forget chunks of information and find it harder to recall afterwards.
  2. The subjects heart rate increased along with their stress levels.

The recent case of two Microsoft employees alleging that they had developed post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of working with the tech firm’s online safety team from 2008 highlights the far reaching effects of emotional labour. The case is ongoing and lack of support within those roles is cited as a major factor. Composure, suppressing our real emotions and smiling when we feel like doing otherwise has a negative impact on workplace wellbeing.

Personal growth & negative emotions

Adler and Hershfield (2012) found that there may be a detoxifying effect upon negative emotions when we face them rather than attempting to push them down. Such eudaemonic approaches emphasise the growth and meaning that can be drawn from negative experiences and emotions. If we push it down it’ll just reappear somewhere else at a later date. The ostrich strategy won’t do us any favours. We need to do something with those emotions, but what?

Is there an antidote?

It’s important that behaviour is aligned in an organisation and that there are benchmarks of acceptable operational standards. Undeniably, there is a need for emotional labour. As a result, there’s no magic bullet to cure stress caused by it’s impact, but there are steps that you can take as an employee, manager, leader, head of HR or CEO. Here’s our checklist to guide you;

  • Recognise the phenomenon and design a strategy to manage it
  • Develop individual emotional intelligence and social awareness
  • Practice mindfulness as a stress reduction intervention
  • Identify resilience building strategies at work, developing both individual and organisational resilience
  • Share and learn from successes of employees and colleagues in roles requiring emotional labour
  • When people fail to manage their emotions, work out what went wrong and why. Use it as an opportunity to learn from failure rather than adopting a punitive approach. Examine policies and procedures to see if they could be improved.

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