zaykar logo

Emotional Labour – Organisational Behaviour



Putting on a good show, keeping face, professionalism in customer treatment can all be examples of emotional labour. When in the workplace dealing with others whether they be colleagues or customers we tend to give a positive emotional response despite the negativity of the other person (customer complaint) or our own current mood state (sadness, irritability) known as emotional dissonance. In this paper we will explore the phenomenon of emotional labour and its effect on workers productivity and social relations. The general outcome being that the strain of that dissonance creates mental health problems in the workplace.


Emotional labour can be seen as the affect of the current mood of a worker whilst engaging in interactions with others – putting on a good face for example despite feeling emotionally uncomfortable. (1. Robins/Judge 2013) These emotions can be driven by organisational expectations of an employees behaviour towards customers, clients and co-workers in support of the business goals to profit. For example in the service industry, customer complaints should be handled with a polite professional smiling attitude so that the customer perceives that their complaints are receiving serious attention. Despite the fact the service provider (customer relations officer) maybe be in a personal bad mood, have life problems or employment concerns – all this is swept aside to provide the company’s public positive image to the customer. For the employee engaged in such activities the strain of appearing positive and enthusiastic may cause both physical and emotional strain often leading to further deterioration in mood after work and in between assignments. You could argue that a good deal of the time we are in fact faking our emotions (feelings) in front of and towards others to support social conventions for example being polite. If a customer’s complaint is unreasonable, they are showing anger, accusing the company or misleading them and selling shoddy products – the company service support worker must maintain control over their own emotions despite feeling that the customer is wrong and the complaint is unwarranted or even ridiculous they still have to maintain the company driven reaction to the customer with calm professionalism. (2. Myler – Case Studies 2018) Some companies make being happy at work almost mandatory – where staff entertain, create an atmosphere or encourage excitement over the product and its associated feelings of happiness. For example, theme park staff forced to smile all day – try it yourself – it is very stressful to keep a happy demeanor in the face of disgruntled visitors waiting hours in a queue for a five minute ride or the phone shop worker being asked to entertain the queue of waiting customers with hi-fives and silly games. (3. Grandey 2010) Many customers in fact reporting discomfort at being targeted for unwanted attention and interaction). Therefore there is a difference between felt emotions (what I am actually thinking and feeling) than with displayed emotions (what is expected of me). After an interaction the employee can feel both exhausted by the forced situation and emotionally angry at faking their feelings for the benefit of others. Many people who suffer from depression report that faking happiness is the biggest strain of the day.

Culture and Emotional Labour

Culture may impact on how someone sees emotional labour as the expectations of others in the light of social comparison. (4. Matsumoto etal. 2009) For example many American service jobs, such as retail staff, service providers and customer interaction workers all feel that a positive upbeat smiling enthusiastic person is a definite requirement for the companies image management. The monocor – have a nice day – often rings false in the ears of those who understand this is not a genuine sentiment but a practiced social grace. In other cultures such as Japan or Asia in general – forced politeness or deference to not displaying emotions may in fact cause particular strain on everyday life where displaced emotion can be seen in acts of violence and sexual deviance. The French tend to not display openness in dealing with customers but in fact a non-smiling or even impolite attitudes towards their clients. This can cause companies dealing in global markets problems with staff in having to adapt and understand policy in line with the cultural underlying expectations of behaviour.

Mental Health

Many psychologists, counsellors and others such as nurses encounter patients (clients) who maybe presenting mental health problems such as anxiety (worry about future events) or depression (living with the past) that report difficulties in the work place in faking their emotions towards both colleagues and customers – that they feel the strain of the day at home later through irritability, sexual indifference a lack of appetite and sleep. Keeping up appearances at work therefore effects the very quality of our lives both in and out of the work place. (5. Myler Case Studies 2018) Dealing with difficult people whether customers or colleagues leaves us feeling exhausted physically and mentally. In therapy the psychologist maybe searching for psycho-dynamic reasons for the negative feelings from past patterns of behaviour and often miss the power of the here and now effect of faking your feelings at work simply due to enforced company policies that require us to present an image of well- being and happiness that actually is not there. Treatment therefore should focus on workplace stress rather than personal history.

Role Play & Emotional Labour:

Of course we are schooled from an early age in how to act given certain social situations, for example being happy at a birthday party ( don’t spoil it for everyone) to look sad at the funeral (even when we did not even like the deceased). We have learned behavior for situational displays of affect. Have you ever been told off – criticised – looked at the person with a smile on your face – and they say, “what are you smiling at?” they think you are not taking them seriously enough, acknowledging their concerns – the truth maybe that we think their remarks are unwarranted and silly – however our learned correct response is to – look serious and be intently listening – while all the time inside feeling what an idiot this person is! In other words we are often asked to fake it – for the sake of the other persons feelings – this is often seen as high empathy when in fact it is more often just a learned reaction to a situational event. Emotional intelligence is seen a as a panacea for management effectiveness but maybe little more than learned responses to situations, rather than a genuine cognitive response to some event. In other words emotional intelligence maybe more pop psychology than a fact. Measurement for emotional understanding may reflect no more about the learned response to given situations we have come to understand through cultural, generational and traditional customs of our community or group behaviour. Psychometric tests for emotional intelligence may in fact be invalid and not robust enough to provide any useful measure of a persons feelings towards others but in fact reflect that learned behaviour – what should be the response not what I actually feel inside.

Attributions Theory – Misunderstanding Others:

Attribution theory ( 6. Heider – 1958) suggests that we attend to what we see more than what we know. In other words – we do in fact judge a book by its cover. So if we are busy faking our emotions so must everyone else? So how do we know that the mood being displayed to us is genuine or faked. We pride ourselves on being able to know others feeling by their facial expressions, there seemingly genuineness and authentic sounding responses. In fact much of the time we maybe reacting to the faked emotion rather than the real one. We are often surprised to hear someone committed suicide – we may say – they always seemed so positive and happy looking – but that is exactly what a mis-attribution is – the lack of skills to identify a real emotion from a faked one – we are actually quite good at emotional labour at work and so do we really know what anyone is actually feeling, as opposed to what they are displaying to us. So the helpful shop assistant may in fact be bored rigid at having to seem enthusiastic about a product she has already spoken about ten times that day already.

In Summery:

Emotional labour is a situation where the employee expresses the companies desired response to a given situation. Emotional dissonance are our feeling of confusion between our internal feelings and the face we put upon the situation given company policy towards others. Felt emotions therefore being what we actually feel as opposed to displayed emotion being the faked response to another person. Finally emotional intelligence being no more than learned responses to events as we behave given the situation we find ourselves in. The consequences of faked emotions can be strain leading to emotional exhaustion that has both physical and emotional outcomes for mental health and general well-being. Judging others may in fact lead to mis-attributions where we think the faked emotion is in fact the real feelings of the other party.

To be honest, open and authentic would be real intimacy in our relationships but carries the high risk of rejection and misunderstandings.


1. Robins S.P. Judge T.A. 2013 – Organizational Behavior 15Ed Pearson Publishing

2. Myler S.F. 2018 – Myler Case Studies 2018/19 Unpublished

3. Grandey A. 2010 – Work in the Global Services Economy – Journal of Service Management.

4. Matsumoto D. 2009 – Culture & Emotional Expression – New York, Taylor & Francis publishing.

5. Myler S. F. 2019 – Myler Case Studies 2019 Unpublished

6. Heider F 1958 – Attribution Theory – Oxford Dictionary of Psychology 2001


Source by Stephen F. Myler

Leave a Comment