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The Hidden Toll of Emotional Labor

Why you need a nap after a day of not cussing out your co-workers.

“The most exhausting thing in life, I have discovered, is being insincere.”
― Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea

How do you feel about clowns?

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Judging by a quick google search, if your reaction is anywhere on the negative side of the spectrum (from mild dislike to full-blown phobia), you’re far from alone.

It might make an interesting side post to consider just what is so damn creepy about clowns, but what I’d actually like to consider right now is how it might feel to BE one.

For a moment, put yourself in a clown’s... uh, clown shoes.

Even putting aside the fact that you’re wearing a heavy costume festooned with all manner of crinkly, puffed up bits and slathered in thick makeup that dries to a tight, pasty sheen locked to your face and neck, you have to act jolly and over-exuberant for hours on end. Whether or not you’ve gotten enough sleep last night. Whether or not you got in a fight with your girlfriend right before the event AND are coming down with the flu. Whether the crowd you’ve been hired to entertain is in a friendly mood or whether they’re actually made up of a bunch of clown-phobes like me.

Exhausting, right?

Thankfully, most of us are not required to display constant elation in our jobs. But unless you’re an artist painting in her studio in the mountains or a truck driver logging mile after mile by yourself, your job probably involves working with other people at least some of the time.

And perhaps you love all of your coworkers, clients, and/or customers and are able to show them all of your emotions authentically and without censorship. If so, I guess you can stop reading. For the rest of you, read on.

Interacting with Customers and People You Don’t Like: Surface Acting

When you mask your true emotions in order to perform your job, organizational psychologists call this surface acting.

Flikr Creative Commons
Source: Flikr Creative Commons

We all surface act to some extent: to conceal our rotten mood or dislike for a colleague’s proposal, for instance. But if you're in the service industry, it is nearly a defining element of your job. If you’re a waiter or a hotel receptionist or Princess Elsa at Disney World, if you want to be successful, you have to portray pretty much constant upbeat pleasantness.

Turns out, hiding your true emotions is sort of exhausting. To surface act, your brain uses up resources like attention and working memory (sort of like a computer's RAM), and these resources are limited.

When you inhibit your natural reaction to your irritating co-worker or customer, you must engage in three different stages of effort: first, you need to make the decision and “act of will” to control your expressions and body language; second, you need to engage all of the behaviors and physiology to make this a reality (smooth your brow, smile, take a deep breath); and third, you need to keep track of how successful you are being, whether you should switch gears, etc.

This whole process may be quite tiring, and your awareness of how tiring it all is can make it that much worse.

Who Fares Better: The Emotionally Reactive or the Placid?

Whenever psychologists get to the point where we understand a phenomenon to a reasonable degree (here, that surface acting in the workplace results in fatigue), we start wondering about how people differ in their experience of the phenomenon.

One way that people can differ emotionally is in the degree of affect spin they experience. Described at more length by blogger Christian Jarrett here, affect spin refers to how much your emotions change from moment to moment, day to day. Some people have low affect spin, cycling gently between related emotions like interest, boredom, and pleasantness. Others cycle more rapidly and extremely — intensely joyful one moment, devastated a few hours later.

With some colleagues, researcher Daniel Beal of Virginia Tech set out to discover whether people in the service industry experienced fatigue due to surface acting, and whether people high and low in affect spin varied in the degree to which they did so.

They used a technique called experience sampling, which asks participants to report on their experiences periodically during their daily lives. Sixty-four restaurant servers in seven different U.S. restaurants reported on their emotions, their acting, and their fatigue across a total of 2,051 different moments.

Dan Deakin, Flikr Creative Commons
Source: Dan Deakin, Flikr Creative Commons

The results revealed that yes indeed, surface acting is exhausting. Moreover, people who were more emotionally reactive (high affect spin) found it more exhausting. Which makes sense— if you are having strong and unpredictable emotions, it is likely to be more tiring to hide them. If you don't experience many different strong emotions, it may be easier and less effortful to maintain a calm, pleasant demeanor — it is a closer match to your natural state.

However, there was also a silver lining for the emotionally reactive — even though overall they were more exhausted by the acting and more stressed by it, they seemed to experience a quicker recovery than the more emotionally consistent participants — the fatigue didn't last as long, perhaps because they have more practice dealing with the effects.

In Conclusion

My little brother works for a landscaping company and he gives me a hard time because he does physically taxing work all day and seemingly has more energy than I do at the end of it. ("I jackhammered in the hot sun for six hours... what did you do today, send some emails?").

There are probably many reasons for this, but now I can point him to the fact that in my roles as teacher and mentor and college committee member, I spend many hours a day surface acting.

And thus deserve my Netflix binge*.


The research article this post describes:

Beal, D., Trougakos, J., Weiss, H., & Dalal, R. (2013). Affect Spin and the Emotion Regulation Process at Work. Journal of Applied Psychology DOI:10.1037/a0032559

For more on hiding emotional expressions, and why it is so exhausting:

Gross, J.J., & Levenson, R.W. (1993). Emotional suppression: Physiology, self-report, and expressive behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 970-986.pdf…

For a review of the current state of knowledge regarding emotional labor:

Grandey, A., & Gabriel, A. (2015). Emotional labor at a crossroads: Where do we go from here? Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 2, p. 323-349.…

What about people at Disney World?

Anne Reyers, & Jonathan Matusitz (2012). Emotional Regulation at Walt Disney World: An Impression Management View Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health, 27 (3), 139-159 DOI: 10.1080/15555240.2012.701167

* I don't actually get tv-bingeing, but that probably indicates that something is wrong with me as a human being, so I won't mention it.