From Emotional Labor to Emotional Opportunity: How Personal Investment in Work Pays Off

November 21, 2012

By: Ryan W. Quinn


Originally posted on the LIFT Blog

I walked into a restaurant a few weeks ago and was impressed with the person behind the counter. He was a fiftyish man named Jim, and he was smiling and laughing and appeared genuinely happy to be there.

He called people by nicknames, made them laugh, and engaged them about their orders. Everyone who ordered walked away from the counter smiling. If I lived in that community and wanted to get a bite to eat, I would be more likely to choose that restaurant just because that man was working there.

Emotional Labor

Since that day, I have had a number of conversations with colleagues about a concept known as emotional labor. Simply explained, the key idea behind emotional labor is that when people’s work settings require them to display emotions they do not feel, it has a negative impact on their physical and psychological health and can sometimes negatively affect social relationships later on. These are real costs, and they should be taken seriously.

Was the jovial restaurant worker just going through the motions because his work required it? Or was his good cheer authentic? I think it was real. And just as there are costs to emotional labor, there are benefits to feeling and displaying positive emotions on the job.

The Puzzle

We have much to gain from experiencing positive emotions at work:

  • A broader array of possible thoughts and actions
  • A tendency to build up more resources
  • Greater resilience
  • Greater well-being

When we consider these two sets of research, the key to this aspect of job satisfaction is consistency between the emotions our work requires us to display and the emotions we feel about the work itself. In that situation, there is no conflict, and we can derive emotional benefits from our work rather than incurring emotional costs.

Opportunities for Managers and Employees

For managers and employees alike, opportunities exist to uncover avenues through which to align personal emotions with those the job requires.

Managers, for example, could create a structure and context for work that makes it easy for people to genuinely feel the emotions appropriate to the job. There’s no point forcing such emotions, though, by doing things like tying them to rewards. Instead, managers must care enough to think about what can make work meaningful for individual employees. They can also help their employees frame or design their work in ways that make it more meaningful and uplifting to them personally.

Of course, employees themselves could take initiative by looking for ways to frame and craft their work so that it is meaningful to them. A do-it-yourself inquiry employees could use would look something like this:

  1. Who is benefited by the work I do and how are they benefitted?
  2. Are there ways I could enhance this benefit?
  3. How could I make my work more challenging and thus more of a learning opportunity?
  4. Who or what are the resources, people, and activities involved in my work? For what 10 reasons am I grateful for each?
  5. Tell at least 10 people thank you in the next hour for things they have done to make my work better in some way.

Emotional labor may be a cost. But using a positive framework to give a favorable context to labor has transformational power: The job could be the same, but the employee’s different.

Imagine if each of us had as fulfilling a work day as Jim’s. How much more could we get done? How much better would we feel?

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