Theme: Emotional work and how to avoid burnout
We all have to manage our own emotions in our jobs.
“Think of a time you were really annoyed by a colleague, but masked your feelings so you could get the job done. Or when you marched into your boss’s office to ask for a raise, but kept your cool so you could negotiate.”
We also manage other people’s emotions.
Think of a time when you tried to inspire a disappointed coworker, or when you tried to calm down a frustrated customer.
In some cases, managing emotions is the job. Think service jobs, for example.
And even if you’re not working a service job, you’re engaged in a service encounter every time you get a haircut, visit the doctor or order a coffee. Every one of those service jobs has expectations about what emotions to show.
Most workplaces don’t create the space for genuine emotional expression. Think about your job. You probably had moments when you just faked an emotion. You plastered on a smile, you tried to sound cheerful even when you weren’t feeling it.
Have you ever felt really tired at the end of your shift?
Alicia Grandey, an organizational psychologist at Penn State, says she felt exhausted at the end of her shifts when working at Starbucks. At the time, she didn’t understand why she felt so tired, but today she does: it’s because she was experiencing ‘emotional labor’.
What is emotional labor?
“Emotional labor is what happens when you fake your true feelings or emotions, like when you receive a gift that you don’t really like, but feel obligated to act as if you do like it. Or, when a customer is rude to you, and you act friendly and nice to them even though you are actually angry or upset. In situations like these, there is an emotional disconnect between what you’re showing on the outside and what you truly feel on the inside.” (Grant, 2018)
One of the ways we try to cope with this is by surface acting.
Adam calls it “wearing a mask that you take off at the end of the day.”
The problem with surface acting is that it creates a sense of being inauthentic, which negatively affects our mental health. Studies show that those who surface act often end up feeling more emotionally drained and stressed; the more surface acting we do, the higher the likelihood of burnout.
The alternative? Deep acting
“Instead of putting on a mask, you actually try to feel the emotion. That way, it comes out naturally.”
Deep acting refers to modifying the emotions that you actually experience or feel to appear in the way that you’re expected to, whereas surface acting refers to modifying the emotions that you express or display to appear in the way you’re expected to.
Do you see the difference?
Since deep acting is genuine, it demands less emotional labor of us, Grandley explains.
We all have scripts that we follow in everyday life. They’re the expected behaviors in a given situation.
Whether we realize it or not, there’s a script for almost everything: how to handle a first date, a job interview, etc. And scripts often vary based on our gender, race, culture and age.
Scripts exist because they’re efficient. They save us the mental effort of having to decide how to act in every situation.
So many workplaces hand their employees a script. “This is the person you have to be in order to work for us.” But that kind of script is often an excuse to surface act or wear the mask someone else gives you; scripts make it easy for us to surface act.
And when we surface act, we become emotionally drained.
Conversely, a good script is empowering and enabling. It tells you what you can do, not just what you can’t, Adam explains.
Good scripts leave room for you to be yourself: to customize and personalize, to make it your own.
Here’s an example to follow:
Danny Meyer, owner of Union Square Hospitality Group, has an interesting workplace philosophy: “If you really, really want to have the best customer experience, put your customer second. […] Put your employees first.”
Danny says: “We believe that our customers will never measurably be happier than the people working there.”
In customer-first cultures, people do a lot of surface acting. Since the focus is on pleasing the customer all the time, employees are often forgotten. They fake emotions to please the customers.
So, what are we to make of this?
“the best scripts are the ones that help you help without forcing you to put on a mask. Research shows that the organizations with the happiest customers are actually the ones that put employees first. They value relationships inside the workplace not just outside with the public. Because the emotions people experience on the job have a huge impact on the customer’s experience. When employees are treated well, they naturally treat the customer well. It’s not acting. They really care.” (Grant, 2018)
Be aware of your wake
Danny Meyer uses a clever metaphor to explain the workplace dynamic. He says we should see ourselves as little canoes travelling through water, leaving a wake in our path.
Our wake reflects how we interact with others (e.g. what we do and say, and how we act). Whether we realize it or not, our ‘wake’ affects all the other boats nearby.
So, the question is: Are we aware of the effect our wake has on others?
Photo by Alan Labisch on Unsplash
“Emotional work is undervalued. In a world where many jobs can be automated or outsourced, care and communication skills are becoming more vital than ever before. So every time you’re on the other side of a service interaction, remember that the whole emotional burden doesn’t have to be on the provider. Emotional labor is hard work, and it deserves empathy. Every time you act like a jerk, you’re making someone else’s job more difficult. And that’s going to spill over to affect every other customer that day. It may be their job to help us, but there’s usually something we can do to help them. It’s always wise to pay attention to the wake you create.”
Questions to think about
- Are you aware of the effect your wake has on others?
- Does your workplace create the space for genuine emotional expression?
- How emotionally/mentally healthy are your employees?
- How do your employees look at the end of their shifts? Are they tired, or energized?
- Does your business put the customer or the employee first?
- Think about Danny Meyer’s statement for a second: “We believe that our customers will never measurably be happier than the people working there”. Do you believe this?
Applications for business
Adam explains that when we focus on the people who benefit from our work, it energizes us: we’re less likely to burn out when we see how our job helps others. To incorporate this principle into your workplace:
- Keep a daily journal how you contribute to others
- Give your employees opportunities to grasp the meaning behind their work; in what ways their work influences real people for good. Allow your employees to talk to customers, or visit them personally to see how your product/service affects them in their lives.
- Rethink the scripts you (consciously or unconsciously) give your employees. Consult with them in remaking them if necessary.
Grant, Adam. “Faking Your Emotions at Work”. Audio blog post. WorkLife with Adam Grant. TED, April 4th 2018. Itunes App.