What is Emotional Labour?


Emotional labour is the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfil the emotional requirements of a job. More specifically, workers are expected to regulate their emotions during interactions with customers, co-workers and managers.

Not to be confused with Emotion Work and refer to Affective Labour.

Roles that have been identified as requiring emotional labour include those involved in public administration, espionage, law, caring for children, medical care, social work; roles in hospitality, and jobs in the media. As particular economies move from a manufacturing to a service-based economy, more workers in a variety of occupational fields are expected to manage their emotions according to employer demands when compared to sixty years ago.

Usage of the term has also been extended to refer to unpaid work that is expected interpersonally, such as taking care of organising holiday events or helping a friend solve their problems.


The sociologist Arlie Hochschild provides the first definition of emotional labour, which is displaying certain emotions to meet the requirements of a job. The related term emotion work (also called “emotion management”) refers to displaying certain emotions for personal purposes, such as within the private sphere of one’s home or interactions with family and friends. Hochschild identified three emotion regulation strategies:

CognitiveWithin cognitive emotion work, one attempts to change images, ideas, or thoughts in hopes of changing the feelings associated with them. For example, one may associate a family picture with feeling happy and think about said picture whenever attempting to feel happy.
BodilyWithin bodily emotion work, one attempts to change physical symptoms in order to create a desired emotion. For example, one may attempt deep breathing in order to reduce anger.
ExpressiveWithin expressive emotion work, one attempts to change expressive gestures to change inner feelings, such as smiling when trying to feel happy.

While emotion work happens within the private sphere, emotional labour is emotion management within the workplace according to employer expectations. Jobs involving emotional labour are defined as those that:

  • Require face-to-face or voice-to-voice contact with the public.
  • Require the worker to produce an emotional state in another person.
  • Allow the employer, through training and supervision, to exercise a degree of control over the emotional activities of employees.

Hochschild (1983) argues that within this commodification process, service workers are estranged from their own feelings in the workplace.

Alternative Usage

The term has been applied in modern contexts to refer to household tasks, specifically unpaid labour that is often expected of women, e.g. planning celebrations or having to remind their partner of chores. The term can also refer to informal counselling, such as providing advice to a friend or helping someone through a breakup. When Hochschild was interviewed about this shifting usage, she expressed that it made the concept blurrier and was sometimes being applied to things that were simply just labour, although how carrying out this labour made a person feel could make it emotional labour as well.

This modern use of the term had originally been introduced by non-professionals of the field and has therefore received criticism by medical and psychological professionals.


Societal, Occupational, and Organisational NormsFor example, empirical evidence indicates that in typically “busy” stores there is more legitimacy to express negative emotions than there is in typically “slow” stores, in which employees are expected to behave in accordance with the display rules. Hence, the emotional culture to which one belongs influences the employee’s commitment to those rules.
Dispositional Traits and Inner Feeling on the JobSuch as employees’ emotional expressiveness, which refers to the capability to use facial expressions, voice, gestures, and body movements to transmit emotions; or employees’ level of career identity (the importance of the career role to self-identity), which allows them to express the organisationally-desired emotions more easily (because there is less discrepancy between expressed behaviour and emotional experience when engaged in their work).
Supervisory Regulation of Display RulesSupervisors are likely to be important definers of display rules at the job level, given their direct influence on workers’ beliefs about high-performance expectations. Moreover, supervisors’ impressions of the need to suppress negative emotions on the job influence the employees’ impressions of that display rule.

Surface and deep acting foundational text divided emotional labour into two components:

  • Surface acting: Occurs when employees display the emotions required for a job without changing how they actually feel.
  • Deep acting: Is an effortful process through which employees change their internal feelings to align with organisational expectations, producing more natural and genuine emotional displays.

Although the underlying processes differ, the objective of both is typically to show positive emotions, which are presumed to impact the feelings of customers and bottom-line outcomes (e.g. sales, positive recommendations, and repeat business). However, research generally has shown surface acting is more harmful to employee health. Without a consideration of ethical values, the consequences of emotional work on employees can easily become negative. Business ethics can be used as a guide for employees on how to present feelings that are consistent with ethical values, and can show them how to regulate their feelings more easily and comfortably while working.


In the past, emotional labour demands and display rules were viewed as a characteristic of particular occupations, such as restaurant workers, cashiers, hospital workers, bill collectors, counsellors, secretaries, and nurses. However, display rules have been conceptualised not only as role requirements of particular occupational groups, but also as interpersonal job demands, which are shared by many kinds of occupations.

Bill Collectors

In 1991, Sutton did an in-depth qualitative study into bill collectors at a collection agency. He found that unlike the other jobs described here where employees need to act cheerful and concerned, bill collectors are selected and socialised to show irritation to most debtors. Specifically, the collection agency hired agents who seemed to be easily aroused. The newly hired agents were then trained on when and how to show varying emotions to different types of debtors. As they worked at the collection agency, they were closely monitored by their supervisors to make sure that they frequently conveyed urgency to debtors.

Bill collectors’ emotional labour consists of not letting angry and hostile debtors make them angry and to not feel guilty about pressuring friendly debtors for money. They coped with angry debtors by publicly showing their anger or making jokes when they got off the phone. They minimised the guilt they felt by staying emotionally detached from the debtors.

Childcare Workers

The skills involved in childcare are often viewed as innate to women, making the components of childcare invisible. However, a number of scholars have not only studied the difficulty and skill required for childcare, but also suggested that the emotional labour of childcare is unique and needs to be studied differently. Performing emotional labour requires the development of emotional capital, and that can only be developed through experience and reflection. Through semi-structured interviews, Edwards (2016) found that there were two components of emotional labour in childcare in addition to Hochschild’s original two: emotional consonance and suppression. Edwards (2016) defined suppression as hiding emotion and emotional consonance as naturally experiencing the same emotion that one is expected to feel for the job.

Food-Industry Workers

Wait Staff

In her 1991 study of waitresses in Philadelphia, Paules examines how these workers assert control and protect their self identity during interactions with customers. In restaurant work, Paules argues, workers’ subordination to customers is reinforced through “cultural symbols that originate from deeply rooted assumptions about service work.” Because the waitresses were not strictly regulated by their employers, waitresses’ interactions with customers were controlled by the waitresses themselves. Although they are stigmatised by the stereotypes and assumptions of servitude surrounding restaurant work, the waitresses studied were not negatively affected by their interactions with customers. To the contrary, they viewed their ability to manage their emotions as a valuable skill that could be used to gain control over customers. Thus, the Philadelphia waitresses took advantage of the lack of employer-regulated emotional labour in order to avoid the potentially negative consequences of emotional labour.

Though Paules highlights the positive consequences of emotional labour for a specific population of waitresses, other scholars have also found negative consequences of emotional labour within the waitressing industry. Through eighteen months of participant observation research, Bayard De Volo (2003) found that casino waitresses are highly monitored and monetarily bribed to perform emotional labour in the workplace. Specifically, Bayard De Volo (2003) argues that through a sexualized environment and a generous tipping system, both casino owners and customers control waitresses’ behaviour and appearance for their own benefit and pleasure. Even though the waitresses have their own forms of individual and collective resistance mechanisms, intense and consistent monitoring of their actions by casino management makes it difficult to change the power dynamics of the casino workplace.

Fast-Food Employees

By using participant observation and interviews, Leidner (1993) examines how employers in fast food restaurants regulate workers’ interactions with customers. According to Leidner (1993), employers attempt to regulate workers’ interactions with customers only under certain conditions. Specifically, when employers attempt to regulate worker-customer interactions, employers believe that “the quality of the interaction is important to the success of the enterprise”, that workers are “unable or unwilling to conduct the interactions appropriately on their own”, and that the “tasks themselves are not too complex or context-dependent.” According to Leidner (1993), regulating employee interactions with customers involves standardizing workers’ personal interactions with customers. At the McDonald’s fast food restaurants in Leidner’s (1993) study, these interactions are strictly scripted, and workers’ compliance with the scripts and regulations are closely monitored.

Along with examining employers’ attempts to regulate employee-customer interactions, Leidner (1993) examines how fast-food workers’ respond to these regulations. According to Leidner (1993), meeting employers’ expectations requires workers to engage in some form of emotional labour. For example, McDonald’s workers are expected to greet customers with a smile and friendly attitude independent of their own mood or temperament at the time. Leidner (1993) suggests that rigid compliance with these expectations is at least potentially damaging to workers’ sense of self and identity. However, Leidner (1993) did not see the negative consequences of emotional labour in the workers she studied. Instead, McDonald’s workers attempted to individualise their responses to customers in small ways. Specifically, they used humour or exaggeration to demonstrate their rebellion against the strict regulation of their employee-customer interactions.


According to Larson and Yao (2005), empathy should characterize physicians’ interactions with their patients because, despite advancement in medical technology, the interpersonal relationship between physicians and patients remains essential to quality healthcare. Larson and Yao (2005) argue that physicians consider empathy a form of emotional labour. Specifically, according to Larson and Yao (2005), physicians engage in emotional labour through deep acting by feeling sincere empathy before, during, and after interactions with patients. On the other hand, Larson and Yao (2005) argue that physicians engage in surface acting when they fake empathic behaviours toward the patient. Although Larson and Yao (2005) argue that deep acting is preferred, physicians may rely on surface acting when sincere empathy for patients is impossible. Overall, Larson and Yao (2005) argue that physicians are more effective and enjoy more professional satisfaction when they engage in empathy through deep acting due to emotional labour.

Police Work

According to Martin (1999), police work involves substantial amounts of emotional labour by officers, who must control their own facial and bodily displays of emotion in the presence of other officers and citizens. Although policing is often viewed as stereotypically masculine work that focuses on fighting crime, policing also requires officers to maintain order and provide a variety of interpersonal services. For example, police must have a commanding presence that allows them to act decisively and maintain control in unpredictable situations while having the ability to actively listen and talk to citizens. According to Martin (1999), a police officer who displays too much anger, sympathy, or other emotion while dealing with danger on the job will be viewed by other officers as someone unable to withstand the pressures of police work, due to the sexist views of many police officers. While being able to balance this self-management of emotions in front of other officers, police must also assertively restore order and use effective interpersonal skills to gain citizen trust and compliance. Ultimately, the ability of police officers to effectively engage in emotional labour affects how other officers and citizens view them.

Public Administration

Many scholars argue that the amount of emotional work required between all levels of government is greatest on the local level. It is at the level of cities and counties that the responsibility lies for day to day emergency preparedness, firefighters, law enforcement, public education, public health, and family and children’s services. Citizens in a community expect the same level of satisfaction from their government, as they receive in a customer service-oriented job. This takes a considerate amount of work for both employees and employers in the field of public administration. There are two comparisons that represent emotional labour within public administration, “Rational Work versus Emotion Work”, and “Emotional Labour versus Emotional Intelligence.”


Many scholars argue that when public administrators perform emotional labour, they are dealing with significantly more sensitive situations than employees in the service industry. The reason for this is because they are on the front lines of the government, and are expected by citizens to serve them quickly and efficiently. When confronted by a citizen or a co-worker, public administrators use emotional sensing to size up the emotional state of the citizen in need. Workers then take stock of their own emotional state in order to make sure that the emotion they are expressing is appropriate to their roles. Simultaneously, they have to determine how to act in order to elicit the desired response from the citizen as well as from co-workers. Public Administrators perform emotional labour through five different strategies: Psychological First Aid, Compartments and Closets, Crazy Calm, Humour, and Common Sense.

Definition: Rational Work vs. Emotion Work

According to Mary Guy, Public administration does not only focus on the business side of administration but on the personal side as well. It is not just about collecting the water bill or land ordinances to construct a new property, it is also about the quality of life and sense of community that is allotted to individuals by their city officials. Rational work is the ability to think cognitively and analytically, while emotional work means to think more practically and with more reason.

Definition: Intelligence vs. Emotional Intelligence

Knowing how to suppress and manage one’s own feelings is known as emotional intelligence. The ability to control one’s emotions and to be able to do this at a high level guarantees one’s own ability to serve those in need. Emotional intelligence is performed while performing emotional labour, and without one the other can not be there.


Macdonald and Sirianni (1996) use the term “emotional proletariat” to describe service jobs in which “workers exercise emotional labour wherein they are required to display friendliness and deference to customers.” Because of deference, these occupations tend to be stereotyped as female jobs, independent of the actual number of women working the job. According to Macdonald and Sirianni (1996), because deference is a characteristic demanded of all those in disadvantaged structural positions, especially women, when deference is made a job requirement, women are likely to be overrepresented in these jobs. Macdonald and Sirianni (1996) claim that “[i]n no other area of wage labour are the personal characteristics of the workers so strongly associated with the nature of the work.” Thus, according to Macdonald and Sirianna (1996), although all workers employed within the service economy may have a difficult time maintaining their dignity and self-identity due to the demands of emotional labour, such an issue may be especially problematic for women workers.

Emotional labour also affects women by perpetuating occupational segregation and the gender wage gap. Job segregation, which is the systematic tendency for men and women to work in different occupations, is often cited as the reason why women lack equal pay when compared to men. According to Guy and Newman (2004), occupational segregation and ultimately the gender wage gap can at least be partially attributed to emotional labour. Specifically, work-related tasks that require emotional work thought to be natural for women, such as caring and empathizing are requirements of many female-dominated occupations. However, according to Guy and Newman (2004), these feminized work tasks are not a part of formal job descriptions and performance evaluations: “Excluded from job descriptions and performance evaluations, the work is invisible and uncompensated. Public service relies heavily on such skills, yet civil service systems, which are designed on the assumptions of a bygone era, fail to acknowledge and compensate emotional labour.” According to Guy and Newman (2004), women working in positions that require emotional labour in addition to regular work are not compensated for this additional labour because of the sexist notion that the additional labour is to be expected of them by the fact of being a woman.


Positive affective display in service interactions, such as smiling and conveying friendliness, are positively associated with customer positive feelings, and important outcomes, such as intention to return, intention to recommend a store to others, and perception of overall service quality. There is evidence that emotional labour may lead to employees’ emotional exhaustion and burnout over time, and may also reduce employees’ job satisfaction. That is, higher degree of using emotion regulation on the job is related to higher levels of employees’ emotional exhaustion, and lower levels of employees’ job satisfaction.

There is empirical evidence that higher levels of emotional labour demands are not uniformly rewarded with higher wages. Rather, the reward is dependent on the level of general cognitive demands required by the job. That is, occupations with high cognitive demands evidence wage returns with increasing emotional labour demands; whereas occupations low in cognitive demands evidence a wage “penalty” with increasing emotional labour demands. Additionally, innovations that increase employee empowerment – such as conversion into worker cooperatives, co-managing schemes, or flattened workplace structures – have been found to increase workers’ levels of emotional labour as they take on more workplace responsibilities.

Coping Skills

Coping occurs in response to psychological stress – usually triggered by changes – in an effort to maintain mental health and emotional well-being. Life stressors are often described as negative events (loss of a job). However, positive changes in life (a new job) can also constitute life stressors, thus requiring the use of coping skills to adapt. Coping strategies are the behaviours, thoughts, and emotions that you use to adjust to the changes that occur in your life. The use of coping skills will help a person better themselves in the work place and perform to the best of their ability to achieve success. There are many ways to cope and adapt to changes. Some ways include: sharing emotions with peers, having a healthy social life outside of work, being humorous, and adjusting expectations of self and work. These coping skills will help turn negative emotion to positive and allow for more focus on the public in contrast to oneself.

2 thoughts on “What is Emotional Labour?

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.