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An Epidemic of Bad Behavior Means More Emotional Labor for Service Workers

While on a plane traveling to Kathmandu, my flight was on the runway for about two hours before taking off due to technical difficulties. The passengers were not allowed to leave the plane and were irritated because of the delay and the lack of information. They were consistently asking questions to the flight attendant and were vexed when they did not receive a clear reply. Even in this situation, the flight attendant politely answered their questions, served them water, and helped the babies who were crying. They did not have any control over the situation and had all the anger and frustration of the passengers directed at them, yet they regulated their emotions in the way their job required them to. When we ask employees to regulate their emotions to serve organizational goals, it is called emotional labor. Certain types of jobs have always required high levels of emotional labor and those demands seem to be on the rise. Especially during the pandemic, disorderly, rude, unhinged conduct seems to be as contagious as the virus that caused the pandemic .It is an understandable reaction to stress - someone might have lost a job, a loved one or a friend to the pandemic and this could push them over the edge. As a result of this, employees are practicing emotional labor more at work than ever.

Photo Credit: Fem Magazine

When employees practice emotional labor, they show emotions that their job requires them to show rather than expressing how they really feel. This can be done through surface acting or deep acting. Surface acting is when employees display the emotions dictated by their job description, but they do not genuinely feel those emotions. Employees can perform surface acting effectively by maintaining a softer tone while communicating with the customers, constantly smiling, maintaining a warm facial expression, and using company scripted responses to certain situations.


"Certain types of jobs have always required high levels of emotional labor and those demands seem to be on the rise. Especially during the pandemic, disorderly, rude, unhinged conduct seems to be as contagious as the virus that caused the pandemic."


Research has shown that, in jobs requiring significant emotional labor, using surface acting is a predictor of employee turnover. When there is a difference between how an employee feels and what they express, this inconsistency causes cognitive dissonance. When employees are required to carry on the act of emotional labor for a prolonged period, the constant dissonance can make them exhausted and can eventually result in burnout.

On the other hand, deep acting is when employees feel the emotions that they express as a part of their job. This alignment between felt and expressed emotions helps them to be more engaged in their job and enhances their level of job satisfaction. One way to assure that an employee’s emotions at work are aligned with the organization’s goals is to focus on fit during hiring. To avoid a situation in which the employee would fake emotions related to their work role, employers must ensure that their organizational goals and values are in alignment with the employee’s personal goals and values (person-organization fit). They must also assure that a job candidate’s personality, training, and experiences align with the emotional labor demands of the role (person-job fit). When the people hired in an organization understand their role and the values of the organization it assists them in practicing deep acting.

Photo Credit: Capterra

For instance, when a nurse might be yelled at by a patient, she might be able to understand that the yelling is not about her but because of the pain that the patient is feeling. The important aspects of the job are staying calm, meeting the patient’s needs and not letting the emotions of the patient negatively influence one’s own emotions. This is where hiring for fit comes into play because the person who believes his/her mission is to help people and who is naturally calm and empathetic will be able to show this kind of behavior in those emotionally demanding work situations. Otherwise, it would be very easy to yell back or let the negativity of the situation become emotionally draining. So, deep acting through hiring for organizational and job fit makes it easier for employees to do work involving high levels of emotional labor. Even so, when emotional demands are higher than usual, employees will need more support from managers, human resource programs, and may need some more breaks or time off to recuperate.


Ayushi Goyal is a student and Graduate Assistant in the Graduate HRD program at Villanova University. Connect with her on LinkedIn here!


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