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Put on a Happy Face: How Emotional Labor Can Lead to Burnout

A couple of weeks ago, one of my doctoral students asked to meet with me to discuss some of the finer points of the theoretical model for his dissertation. In trying to find a time to meet, he said something very insightful: “Let’s not meet Wednesday afternoon after your long class, because you use so much emotional intelligence in your class that you’re sure to be tired afterwards.”

I’m flattered that this student noticed the efforts I make to engage my students in class and that he knew that I am indeed quite tired after a 4-hour intensive doctoral seminar. And, his comment got me thinking about emotional labor and burnout.

In prior posts, I’ve covered the topics of employee engagement and burnout, and now I want to explore the role of emotional labor in relation to these. Emotional labor has been defined as “the process of regulating both feelings and expressions for the organizational goals” (Grandey, 2000, p. 97). A further exploration of the topic indicates that emotional labor may include “enhancing, faking, or suppressing emotions to modify the emotional expression” (Grandey, 2000, P. 95).

I’m fortunate that in my doctoral seminar, I don’t have to fake my emotions—I work with a group of highly motivated, well-prepared students. But constant eye contact, active listening, encouragement, and alertness for the entire time take a toll on my energy for the rest of the working day.

So many employees must use high amounts of emotional labor—teachers, salespeople, customer service agents, medical staff, and even managers consistently regulate their emotions in their interactions at work. Had a bad day? It doesn’t matter. If you don’t smile at the customer, you could lose a sale. Too much on your mind? Compartmentalize it—you’ve got to focus on the task at hand, or your patients won’t have proper care.

Emotional labor is a part of work and life for many, but it’s important for managers to understand the potential outcomes that come with jobs that require emotional labor. Strong emotional labor has been linked to an improved organizational bottom line, but increased stress from this emotional regulation can come with burnout.

While there are a number of personal factors that relate to the feelings a worker has when engaging in emotional labor, there are also ways that the organization can help mitigate the negative effects. Research suggests that employee autonomy and support from supervisors and coworkers can reduce the potential negative effects of emotional labor.

Autonomy, or having the freedom to do the job as you like, is a big part of what helps me manage my work. After a long class, I typically plan to spend the remainder of my working day doing tasks on my own that don’t take too much concentration. I’m also fortunate to have excellent support from colleagues and from a supervisor, all who understand the emotional effort that teaching requires.

What kind of emotional labor is required in your job or personal life, and how do you manage it? If you’re a manager, have you noticed the emotional labor requirements of your workers? What can you do to keep them from heading toward burnout?

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