January 27, 2015

Emotional Labor, Status, and Stress

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Virtually no job comes without stress. Whether it’s meeting the expectations and deadlines of coworkers, clients, or supervisors, nearly all work can at times be challenging. Sometimes the work itself isn’t as challenging as managing relationships with the people we work with.

Emotional labor involves managing our emotions to meet our job expectations.  For example, retail clerks are expected to be upbeat and enthusiastic about the merchandise (and in general), even if that is not truly how they feel. Emotional labor is also part of dealing with the personalities of those we work with. This labor is not necessarily always stressful. Asking a coworker about a sick relative may be a way to convey your concern about their family without taking much of an emotional toll. But in other cases emotional labor can be very stressful, and this stress can be minimized or magnified based on one’s status.

Take, for example, having a coworker who yells or becomes highly emotional when things don’t go their way. Fortunately I don’t experience this too often, but occasionally I have. Often the yelling, rather than the content of what they are yelling about, creates our own emotional reactions. We might get angry about being yelled at, feel frustrated, hurt, or all of the above. I have the tendency to want to help people calm down, and that can be labor-intensive too.

After a recent experience of being yelled at on the job, I felt very drained and had difficulty concentrating on my work for the rest of the day. I could feel a rush of adrenaline that lasted for hours after the incident; my heart was racing and I could barely eat lunch. My neck and shoulders became very tense too. I spent time sharing my experience with colleagues, who expressed support and likely engaged in emotional labor themselves as they listened sympathetically and voiced their frustration that the particular individual behaved that way. Even when I got home, I still felt the stress and frustration left over from hours ago.

Fortunately, this was an isolated incident, and I don’t regularly interact with this person. But because this person holds a high status position, he or she likely behaves this way with others who may feel too intimidated to respond or to report this individual. While those at the top of organizational flow charts may have more opportunity to lash out at employees and disregard others’ emotions, there can be consequences for them too.

As journalist Walter Isaacson describes in his biography of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, Jobs could be cruelly blunt to employees, who might be regularly told that their work was terrible and given impossible deadlines. This took an emotional toll on employees, many of whom worked around the clock on their projects and were subject to burnout. Because he was Apple’s co-founder, Jobs’ behavior was hard to change, even though high-ranking executives tried to do so. But in 1985, Jobs was fired from Apple, in large part because of his inability to manage his emotions and interact well with others. (He returned in 1997 to lead the company until his death in 2011.)

People with less status in the workplace can also create challenges for others; supervisors might struggle with ways to deal with challenging employees and correct problematic behavior. It’s often emotionally challenging to let someone know their work is unacceptable and even more difficult to have to fire them. Those in positions of authority engage in emotional labor too, and that can be taxing.

Dealing with difficult people on a regular basis can take an emotional and physical toll on employees as well as their families. Workplace stress can be passed along to spouses and children; someone who is stressed out might take out their frustration or anger on those around them. They may not have the energy to participate in family activities, they may yell at their kids, or be unable to address the emotional needs of their family members. This can create a vicious cycle, where other family members might experience stress and the physical symptoms of stress as well. Elevated blood pressure contributes to cardiovascular disease. The whole family might experience stress-induced health problems as well, especially if their coping mechanisms include overeating or drinking excessively.

Emotional labor takes time and energy, and most certainly can have negative effects on productivity. It’s seldom part of a job description, or a resume, but emotional labor is a key part of many different types of work—paid and unpaid. What other examples of emotional labor can you think of? What other effects does emotional labor have on employees?


Nice note. I can def relate. Sometimes I'm so stressed after arguing with coworkers that I can't even focus on the computer screen.

One additional point I would add relates to communication technology. I find that when I get emotional the most are the times when I recieve vague emails about a new project, leaving me with little guidance on how to complete it - and then argumentative counter emails when I wasn't able to read the email "in the right way." In the old days, face to face interactions may have produced less emotional stress - because u can ask for clarification if u don't understand something. But I could be wrong here (just hypothesizing).

Excellent! This issue is one that affects the entire workforce on a global scale. It is my belief that the issue of emotional labor greatly impacts productivity, and as a result, should be given serious consideration.

While some workplace stress is normal, excessive stress can interfere with your productivity and performance—and impact your physical and emotional health. It can even mean the difference between success and failure on the job. You can’t control everything in your work environment, but that doesn’t mean you’re powerless—even when you’re stuck in a difficult situation...

True, it can be emotionally challenging dealing with difficult people...especially the yelling type. it kills one's motivation and performance completely especially if the person is your boss. It is also true,some employees can be overly problematic and it could be difficult to tell them that their work is unacceptable. People don't easily accept their faults.

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