The Pennsylvania State University ©1997

Emotional Labor Stresses Employees

January 7, 2000

University Park, Pa. -- Emotion control techniques may prove useful in helping retail clerks, secretaries, flight attendants and other service workers cope with a sometimes difficult public. It can also improve the bottom line for employers, says a Penn State researcher.

"Service with a smile, especially when mandated by the company, may be pleasing to the customer, but at the same time emotionally and physically stressful for the employee, especially if forced or insincere," says Dr. Alicia A. Grandey, assistant professor of industrial and organizational psychology at Penn State.

"Many clerical and service jobs are already stressful, because they are low wage and low status, with employees having little or no control over their workplace conditions. Maintaining professionally positive expressions for the customer requires a kind of work termed `emotional labor' by some psychologists. Emotional labor may create significant stress, which has mental and physical costs," Grandey notes.

"Job stress does more than cause absenteeism, decreased productivity, fatigue and burnout," she says. "The physiological 'bottling up' of emotions taxes the body over time by overworking the cardiovascular and nervous systems and weakening the immune system. Research has linked the inhibition of emotions to a variety of physical illnesses, including high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer. In fact, inability to express negative emotion is one of the strongest predictors of cancer."

The American Heart Association estimated that cardiovascular diseases cost the U.S. economy more than $130 billion in 1995. This dollar figure includes health care, lost productivity and employee replacement costs. With emotional inhibition potentially contributing to this outcome of stress, Grandey says more attention needs to be paid to emotional labor requirements and how employees regulate their emotions.

Grandey is author of the article, "Emotion Regulation in the Workplace: A New Way to Conceptualize Emotional Labor," scheduled to appear in a special issue of Journal Of Occupational Health Psychology (January 2000).

?Her current research tests the concept of "emotional labor" as processes of controlling emotions. In a preliminary study, faking emotions was found to relate to burnout and lower ratings of customer service.

"The dilemma is that employees are told to suppress or ignore their emotions in order to provide good customer service," Grandey says. "Especially after a jarring experience with a rude or irate customer, the stress caused by suppressing the natural response to this confrontation has costs for both the employee and the organization."

The best support that supervisors can give beleaguered clerks, secretaries and other service employees is understanding. This means assuring them that they are not at the mercy of the abusive or manipulative customer, and that they have rights as well. It also means helping them redirect their emotional response, instead of simply requiring a pasted-on smile, says the researcher.

"Redirecting and reinterpreting emotional signals means going deeper than surface acting or faking their emotional expressions," Grandey notes. "Organizations can help by encouraging employees to take a brief walk or do deep breathing exercises or try internal self-talk that allows employees to reappraise a bad experience with a customer."

For example, employees can reframe their emotional response by reminding themselves of a positive emotion event, or can reappraise the situation by telling themselves, "That customer must have been having a bad day because he normally isn't so unreasonable." Finally, employees should have the opportunity to consider that sometimes the customer is not always right.

All this allows employees to actually process and regulate the emotions rather than just hiding them, according to Grandey, a faculty member in the College of the Liberal Arts.

These techniques also can also prevent a domino effect, by which the negative emotional fallout from one customer outburst becomes contagious and affects the employee's interaction with other customers, she notes.

"Overall, companies need to be concerned about providing friendly customer service but also recognize how this may tax their employees' health. Both have an impact on the bottom line," Grandey adds.


Paul Blaum (814) 865-9481 (o)
Vicki Fong (814) 865-9481 (o)/ (814) 238-1221 (h)
EDITORS: Dr. Grandey is at (814) 863-1867 or at by email.