Keeping Feelings in Check at Work Can be Taxing Proposition

While I was growing up, my father had two main jobs: teaching math during the school year and working for a pest control company in the summers. I noticed he often appeared more exhausted after a day spent in the classroom dealing with students than a day spent in the hot sun doing manual labor.

How could this be? Teaching simply involved standing and talking. It didn’t involve heavy lifting or climbing ladders all day. Like my childhood observations of my dad’s summer job, it’s easy to see how physical labor taxes people. Yet another kind of labor can be equally draining: emotional labor. That’s the kind of labor my dad performed every day during the school year for more than 30 years.

Emotional labor, a term coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, involves the energy you expend managing your emotions – or the way you express them – to meet the expectations of your job. In other words, it’s the effort it takes to maintain your professional game face.

While tree worms and aphids didn’t mind my dad’s frequent expressions of irritation during the summer, his students and fellow teachers at school certainly would have. And if he were alive today, I’m guessing he would say the latter elicited these feelings much more regularly. Yet, every day he held back his real emotions and showing only those that were expected of him.

This kind of emotional work can be insidious. It’s hard to see on the surface. But underneath, it erodes wellbeing and contributes to burnout and turnover. Until employee wellbeing is elevated to the level of awareness and regulation as workplace safety, how can we protect workers from the negative effects of emotional labor on employees and businesses?

One way is to teach team members about the difference between surface acting and deep acting. Think about the last time you watched a terrible movie. Chances are it involved poor acting – the kind that makes you aware the performers are just acting, robbing you of the pleasure of suspending disbelief and enjoying the story.

Researchers have found a similar sort of surface acting – modifying facial expressions and voice to meet the expectations of your job while feeling differently inside – leads to problems in the workplace, too.

Not only do our customers and co-workers usually detect our painted-on smiles, but as such studies as the one published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior have shown, wearing them regularly leads to burnout. This holds true independently of the number of interactions workers have with other people. The level of stress in a service job is more a function of an employee’s ability to perform deep acting than simply attending to people’s needs.

Deep acting happens when a person regulates his emotions in a way that allows him to sync how he really feels inside with his outward expressions.

Shifting from surface acting to deep acting starts with cultivating cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy is the ability to recognize when another person is viewing the mountain from another side and doing your best to place yourself there. This kind of perspective-taking helps us tap into a level of understanding that enables us to genuinely align our emotional response with our external expressions.

We can cultivate this kind of empathy by implementing such practices as:

  • Active listening. Express interest in what the other person says. Ensure he or she feels heard by reflecting back what you heard, asking follow-up questions and displaying affirmative body language. Avoid mentally filling in story gaps with your own ideas about the person’s character. Our stories are often terribly wrong.
  • Shared identity. Think of things you have in common with other people. Even seemingly minor commonalities – you work for the same company or you’re parents – allow you to respond with more empathy.
  • Face reading. Facial expressions provide information about how other people really feel and guide you to respond effectively. If someone appears disinterested, wrap up the conversation. If someone appears frustrated, stop talking and just listen. By the way, if you wonder how good you are at reading faces, take an online quiz.

Since most of his don’t enjoy the advantage of interacting with tree worms all day, it might be time to assess to what degree our people-centric workplaces produce bad movies with poor acting. With a little deep acting practice and cognitive empathy, we can reduce the toll of emotional labor on our employees and roll out a blockbuster business.