The rise of emotional labour

In a service economy staff need to be warm, understanding and tolerant to customers, regardless of how they behave. Barbara Oaff ponders whether employers should mitigate the effects of this emotional labour

In summary

In some way or another, we are all providing a service, be it to external customers or internal stakeholders of a project. As such, we have to deal effectively with people, which involves using our emotions. But this kind of emotional work can be draining if your line manager doesn’t support you in the work, and cater for your emotional needs. Some say that this emotional labour leads to stress, while others say it leads to staff satisfaction.

Case study: Egg

Article in full

These days it’s not necessarily enough for employees to give their time, energy, skill and expertise to do a job properly, they may also have to give their emotions. The rising emergence of what could be called ‘emotional labour’ creates all sorts of issues. For HR departments these revolve around how it affects an individual, how it affects a whole company, and how it can be best managed for all concerned. But, to start with, some context. You’ll already appreciate that for centuries there has been a whole range of professions demanding peoples’ mind, body and souls. But now it is not only social workers, charity workers and aid workers, counsellors and clergymen. It is call centre staff, customer service advisers and line managers, teachers, nurses and police officers, and so on. All are now required to produce “not just physical stamina and analytical capabilities but emotional skills as well”, observes Madeleine Bunting in her recently released book Willing slaves: how the overwork culture is ruling our lives. She stresses that “the emotional demands of [various] jobs have immeasurably increased”. Experts have identified three forces driving this trend. The first is the expansion of the service economy. To compete, many companies now have to provide a product plus a warm experience of buying it. As a result, sales and support staff are increasingly expected to be warm, understanding and tolerant. And yes, this is regardless of how the customer themself is behaving. The second force is the re-thinking of leadership. Out goes command and control authority. In comes collaboration and alliance building. Subsequently, managers are increasingly expected to be open, intuitive, persuasive, and nurturing too. Hence we have received the arrival and rapid dispersal of the expression ‘emotional intelligence’ – referring to someone’s capacity to deal with their own feelings and that of others. The final force is a review of how certain professionals should conduct themselves. Those in health, education and policing in particular are no longer advised to be interested at a distance; today they are advised to be closely connected. So now, they have to treat patients, pupils and victims of crime alike and in a very involved way. The impact of all this is proven to be significant on a micro and macro level. Ginka Toegel, a lecturer in organisational behaviour at the London School of Economics, is the latest person to add to the academic evidence on how emotional labour personally affects individuals. She found that it can hit an employee in five ways. Their immune system can be weakened and their self-esteem lowered. Their decision making abilities can be impaired, their interactions with others marred and, last but not least, their perception of their role in an organisation can be darkened. Emotional labour can, she summarises, “be toxic”. And, like a virus, Toegel says its effect can be contagious. The government has quantified how all this financially affects companies. The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has reported that stress, including the stress of emotional labour, is causing the loss of 6.5 million working days a year and costing Britain up to £3.75 billion annually. A spokesperson for the HSE said “a burnt-out workforce is an unproductive workforce”. So, if emotional labour is spreading and if its implications are unhealthy, what can be done to treat it? The obvious answer is to create a supportive working environment. We all know, however, that is easier said than done. But there is a way to turn rhetoric into reality. The starting point is to properly understand what emotionally engaged employees actually require. “It is self-awareness followed by self-regulation,” says Stuart Duff, managing psychologist at the firm of occupational psychologists, Pearn Kandola. He says: “This means gaining a greater insight into their own personal reactions and then gaining a greater ability to handle those reactions in a constructive way.” This then is your ultimate aim. Achieving it begins with a recognition that emotions are actually alright. “We can be terribly British about this,” says Barry Winbolt, head of clinical practice at the benefits consultancy PPC Worldwide. “We can find this idea a bit of anathema.” But that, he says, must change. “We have got to get comfortable with the idea that it’s alright to feel sad or disappointed or angry or frustrated. And to do that we must appreciate and accept that emotions are not a declaration of intent or a sign of incompetence, they are merely what makes us human.” Once an organisation can come to terms with this theory there are several ways it can put it into practice. Crucially, it can encourage line managers to be caring, approachable and supportive. So, they would ask their people how they are feeling. Including, is there anything they need help with, is there anything that could be done better? Then they would listen, really listen, to the answers. And finally, respond in a positive way. (Ironically, this does result in they themselves becoming emotional labourers which means they then need their own line managers to take a similar tact with them, and along it should go, all the way to the top.) But what is the upside of developing this stratum of emotionally-led line managers? A spokesperson from the Institute of Management explains: “It means the emotionally engaged have someone looking out for their best interests, offering them the guidance and encouragement they need in their role.” But even with sensitive line managers, emotional labourers will still feel the weight of their baggage. To lighten the load further, an organisation could introduce an employee assistance programme which offers a whole range of wellbeing-boosting services. Neil Barber, director of employee research at the benefits consultancy Maritz, says: “Almost anything and everything can be included.” Think physical therapy, such as a subsidised gym membership, or the introduction of an office sports team. Think talking therapy, including appointments with face-to-face counsellors and stress management experts. Think complimentary therapies, which include treatments with masseurs and chiropractors and the like. Think alternative therapies such as sessions involving reiki or meditation or, that latest celebrity must-have, hot stones. Even more radical, think paying employees to enjoy themselves – fund family days out, weekend vitality breaks, even a night course in their particular interest. It is claimed that all these options can help emotionally engaged employees feel more relaxed, more in control and, therefore, more productive. But hang on; is all this really necessary? No, according to some experts. Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says the nature and fallout of emotional labour is rather overrated. “Today we are all each other’s customers – whether inward facing or outward facing, we are serving somebody – and in this country we struggle with the idea of service. We think of it as an unnecessary abasement of ourselves. “Other countries seem to cope with the idea that being polite and friendly, and thoughtful and helpful are just a regular part of everyday working life. But not us. We see it as some sort of put down,” he adds. In his book Happy Mondays – putting the pleasure back into work, Richard Reeves, a former director of think-tank the Work Foundation, argues that emotional labour is not so much over-hyped as misunderstood. It is, as we have noted, a contributor to stress, but stress, writes Reeves, can be a good thing: “Stretching and demanding work feels more challenging than predictable and dull work.” He then goes on to quote the 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard whose mantra was, “anxiety is freedom”. Yet another view comes from Caroline Hardwicke, principal consultant of Empathy Solutions, a consultancy that advises employers how to make their employees more committed to the company’s aims and objectives. She says emotional labour doesn’t lead to stress, and is the forerunner of satisfaction at every level. “People want to relate to each other in the workplace. It is rewarding. It is fulfiling. We do, after all, feel better about ourselves if we do a better job.” This then creates a beneficial spin off, says Hardwicke. “A more satisfied workforce has lower sickness absence and higher retention rates; it has tighter teams and more productive output; it ultimately has higher profit.” With this in mind, Hardwicke predicts that emotional labour will be embraced rather than avoided. “We will see more and more organisations moving towards a culture where people are emotionally engaged in what they do and who they do it for.” Of course not everyone sees the future this way. In her aforementioned book, Bunting concludes that “of all the aspects of overwork, emotional labour is one of the most intractable. The demand for it will continue to expand, as will the stress it generates.” Like most polarised positions, the truth, and what to do about it, is probably somewhere in-between.


Internet bank Egg has worked hard to create a supportive working environment for its 1,000 call centre staff in Derby. To start with, the design of their building is quite innovative. It is bright, light and spacious, and features various optional extras that make smiling on the phone all day long just that little bit easier. In the office itself, uplifting music is piped in, distracting chatter is cancelled out and easy chairs are provided all round. Outside of the office there are breakout rooms created either for relaxation or for letting off steam. Elsewhere there are places to buy lunch or take a coffee and they try to look more like street cafés than staff canteens. Look closely and you’ll see a couple of other unusual practices, especially for a financial institution. You’ll notice that everyone is dressed down, everyday. You’ll also notice that some of them come and go from a treatment room where they can enjoy, for free, a reiki session or perhaps a yoga or meditation session. Rachel Shirbon, communications manager for Egg, explains the philosophy underpinning all this. It is a respect for the importance of the connection between emotions in the workplace and wellbeing in the workplace. Face-to-face for job involvementRegardless of the debate on emotional labour, it makes sense, for all kinds of reasons, to create a supportive working environment and while understanding management and wellbeing benefits can be essential to achieving this aim, there is something else just as fundamental. Enter, the good old fashioned job description. Not the long, bureaucratic form that accompanies application forms, but rather, a face-to-face chat about what the role really involves, what its targets are, what resources are available to reach them, and, how employees’ contributions fit in to the rest of the organisation. This really helps people to know how to direct their energies, says Mike Petrook, a spokesperson for the Institute of Management. Without this sort of guidance, all people, not just the emotionally engaged, can feel lost and out of control which, as we know, can lead to all sorts of problems.