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Emotional Labor


“Learning to manage emotion is essential to forming a mature personality, and is part of all working relationships. The term emotional labour describes jobs that require workers to induce or suppress feelings to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.14 For example, airline stewards are responsible for managing situations with customers to create a favourable experience for the customer.14 Other human service jobs that require personal involvement with clients require workers to cede considerable control to patients or clients. Not only has the number of jobs requiring emotional control increased markedly in recent years, but Hochschild 14 has also identified the growing extent to which emotion is actually engineered and managed in these jobs”

C Muntaner, J Benach, W C Hadden, D Gimeno and F G Benavides, A glossary for the social epidemiology of work organisation: Part 1, Terms from social psychologyJ. Epidemiol. Community Health 2006;60;914-916 doi:10.1136/jech.2004.032631

14 Hochschild AR. The managed heart. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.



More recently, researchers have been investigating the effects of emotional labor on worker health. First developed as a concept in the mid-1980s by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who studied airline attendants, emotional labor is used to describe jobs that require its workers to hide or suppress their actual emotions or call for an inauthentic expression of appropriate emotions for the given situation. These take the form of surface acting, or acting that involves faking or displaying an emotion not felt, and deep acting, wherein workers adjust their actual inner feelings to match those required in the moment. “Front line” workers, human service professionals, sales and service providers are good examples of this (restaurant servers, airline stewards, retail workers, etc). 

The Emotional Labour Scale (ELS) is a 15-item self-report questionnaire that measures six facets of emotional display in the workplace, including the frequency, intensity and variety of emotional display, the duration of interaction, and surface and deep acting. 

 Below are a few items from the Brotheridge and Lee EL scale (1998):


“I just pretend to have the emotions I need to display for my job”.

“I make an effort to actually feel the emotions that I need to display to others”. 


Ten years ago, researchers began finding positive associations between the frequency, intensity, and variety of emotions experienced and burnout [57]. However, since then, other researchers have begun to show that emotional dissonance, a difference between the truly experienced emotion and the emotion that is required to be performed (e.g., “pleasantness”) more consistently leads to negative health outcomes such as burnout [31, 32]. Being required to display positive emotion or suppress negative emotion may be a greater predictor for reduced psychological well-being than just the intensity or variety of emotions experienced on the job.

In this research on human-service workers, Brotheridge and Grandey found that the frequency and duration of service interactions, and the intensity and variety of expression during those interactions, was not associated with emotional exhaustion or depersonalization. In fact, the “amount” of emotional labor performed was related to high personal accomplishment. In other words, having an emotionally demanding job, in and of itself, may actually be a positive experience. It was the requirement to hide negative emotions or display positive emotions which was significantly related to emotional exhaustion and depersonalization. 

In a Swedish study of 2,255 employees of an insurance organization, both quantitative work demands and emotional demands were assessed over a 1-year period [59]. This study found that the emotional demands of the job increased the risk of burnout more than quantitative demands. The authors concluded that it is important to include measures of emotion work when investigating the demand-control model’s effects on burnout in human service workers.


Taken, in part, from: Schnall PL, Dobson M, Rosskam E, Editors Unhealthy Work: Causes, Consequences, Cures. Baywood Publishing, 2009.

Surface Acting and Deep Acting: Emotional Labor and Burnout in Firefighters

For Submission to the APA NIOSH Work and Stress Conference, May 2011, Orlando Florida (October 11, 2010)

Marnie Dobson1,2, BongKyoo Choi1,2, Peter Schnall1,2, Leslie Israel1, Dean Baker1

1 Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, University of California Irvine, USA.
2 Center for Social Epidemiology, Los Angeles, California, USA

Objective: To investigate possible differential effects of two types of emotional labor such as surface acting and deep acting on burnout among firefighters.

Background: As first responders, firefighters must manage traumatic scenarios which require emotional labor, a psychosocial stressor known to be related to burnout in human service work. Emotional labor, a concept developed by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, refers to the regulation of emotions working people perform as part of their job or to promote organizational goals. There are several types of emotional labor potentially applicable to firefighters as human service workers. The literature suggests that professional human service workers, such as nurses, social workers, or firefighters/paramedics, are more likely to “deep act” when performing emotional labor since they internalize the appropriate display of emotion as part of their professional role. Those firefighters more likely to “surface act” are more likely to experience burnout, while “deep acting” may be associated with lower burnout. We will also investigate whether reporting specialized training as helpful to the management of emotions while in the field could modify the association between emotional labor and burnout.

Click here for a pdf of the full Abstract

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