There’s a reason you feel tired after a day of smiling at rude customers or speaking calmly to an inconsiderate boss when you’d rather give him a piece of your mind. Putting on a happy face when you’re angry, irritated or resentful is hard work. Social scientists call it “emotional labor”.
As Susan David, founder of the Harvard/McLean Institute of Coaching, writes in the Harvard Business Review, emotional labor is “the effort it takes to keep your professional game face on when what you’re doing is not concordant with how you feel.”
Everyone fakes their feelings some of the time — we often call it being polite, David notes. But when we constantly behave in ways that conflict with our core values and beliefs (what David refers to as “surface acting”), it can result in depression, anxiety, lower job performance and burnout.
Besides having to change how you express your feelings to meet the expectations of a boss, client or colleague, there is another key aspect of emotional labor in the workplace, writes Rose Hackman in the Guardian. “It also includes influencing workplace harmony, being pleasant, present but not too much, charming and tolerant and volunteering to do menial tasks (such as making coffee or printing documents),” Hackman said.
The Gender Effect
Women are more likely than men to work in roles where emotional labor is expected. This may explain why sociologists find gender differences in the impact of this phenomenon. But Hackman cites the view of Notre Dame sociology professor Jessica Collett, stating that, even in higher-status jobs, where the formal duties are the same for women and men, “women are expected to provide extra emotional labor on the side”.
Both male and female executives, for instance, may have to butter up the corporate clients, but it falls mostly on women to do things like remember colleagues’ birthdays and make small talk with the staff, Hackman says.
Research has shown that the stress of masking feelings can carry over into people’s home lives. A study revealed that people who suppress their feelings at work do the same at home, notes an article in Pacific Standard. Continuing to “fake it” damages personal relationships.
Follow these tips below to ease the stress of emotional labor. If your feelings become overwhelming, use resources through your Employee Assistance Program to help you cope.
- Tweak your job. Try do things at work that put a natural smile on your face more often, David suggests. Approach your manager about how to better align your job responsibilities with your values — perhaps through a project that especially interests you — so that you don’t need to do so much pretending.
- Speak up. If you feel unfairly put-upon to maintain cheer among your coworkers, talk to them about ways to share the load more evenly. When you’re genuinely in a good mood, bring up the idea of setting up a schedule so that everyone takes turns making coffee or ordering birthday cakes.
- Be aware. Take notice of whether wearing your customary game face is causing you to mask your feelings with family and friends. Instead of shutting down when they ask you if anything’s wrong, take it as an opportunity to have an honest conversation. You may discover that you can relieve the exhaustion from emotional work for one another by offering a safe, welcoming space to be yourselves.