Research Findings

Taking a closer look at emotional labor occupations: what are the health consequences for workers?

February 6, 2018

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For many of today’s workers it’s not necessarily enough to give their time, reliability, and skill to a job, they must also give their emotions. Emotional labor—the management and display of emotions at work—has become a prominent job requirement for many occupations in the United States.

Looking at the service producing industries in the U.S., employment in this sector has increased steadily in recent years. Many of the fastest growing occupations are seen in healthcare and social assistance.

As automation and new technologies make many physical and even cognitive-based jobs obsolete, the emotional labor economy—driven by the carework, healthcare, and retail sectors—will put emotional and social skills front and center of the future of work in the United States.

Think home-health aide rather than manual laborer. Therapist instead of financial bookkeeper.

If jobs like these are becoming a staple of the American economy, what are the health implications for contemporary workers when managing emotions is a critical requirement of their job?

Is this ‘emotional labor’ an opportunity for satisfying work through the cultivation of meaningful relationships with customers, or is it a source of stressful interpersonal demands that stifle workers’ ability to have authentic feeling and genuine emotional expression?

We set out to investigate this issue.

Our research shows mixed evidence that emotional labor job requirements lead to negative health outcomes. What we found, however, is that job autonomy is among a small number of important contextual work resources that may reduce negative health implications for workers.

Workers with more control over how they do their jobs might be better able to develop successful and satisfying relationships with customers or clients in such a way that enables them to ‘enjoy’ good overall health

Should emotional labor always be approached with the assumption that it is a stressful occupational demand for all workers?  We find that the answer to this question is contingent on the work context.

The question of whether emotional labor poses an occupational health risk is not a new one. The now popularized mantra “service with a smile” has raised a number of concerns over emotional authenticity at work, and the long-term health consequences for workers.

Arlie Hochschild’s seminal book, The Managed Heart explored the consequences of what she called ‘organizational feeling rules’ for Delta Airlines flight attendants who were trained to feign feelings of submissiveness to passengers, while suppressing negative emotions like irritation. The growing commodification of emotion in modern life, Hochschild suggested, represented a new frontier for organizational control and worker alienation.

In reviewing the literature that followed Hochschild, we noticed some inconsistencies in the evidence linking emotional labor to reduced work well-being. We surmised that these inconsistencies might be due to the generally narrow focus of previous research on either a specific ‘emotional labor’ occupation, or a limited range of workers with similar experiences (i.e. nurses, doctors, therapists).

Our research, therefore, sought to paint a broader picture of the emotional labor requirements experienced across the entire American workforce—from retail and call-center occupations to professional occupations in healthcare and law enforcement. Drawing from the O*NET occupational database, we created an emotional labor measure that assessed the emotional labor requirements for 886 occupations. We then examined how these requirements were associated with the well-being of participants in a large national survey of workers (WSH study).

To what extent are emotional labor-intensive occupations common in the contemporary labor market? Quite common indeed. Occupations high in emotional labor held by WSH respondents constituted a considerably larger share of the employed force than occupations low in these requirements. Interestingly, when we examined the occupation that was highest in emotional labor but lowest in job autonomy ‘flight attendant’— was one of the occupations originally studied by Hochschild.

Our findings linking emotional labor to worker well-being were initially surprising. Occupations high in emotional labor requirements were not associated with any of four indicators of poor health that we examined; in fact, emotional laborers were more likely to report better overall health.

Was this a result of healthier workers self-selecting into emotionally-demanding occupations—such as nursing or police work—that place a premium on resilience or emotional intelligence? Possibly. Although it is also quite possible that occupations like these, which often involve frequent and charged interpersonal encounters, actually have overall benefits for workers, in that they generally entail meaningful work.

What appeared to be key in determining whether emotional labor occupations were detrimental for health was the level of control workers were afforded in performing their duties.

Once we split workers into those with high and low job autonomy, a clearer pattern between emotional labor and well-being emerged: among workers with limited control, emotional labor was associated with poor health and lower job satisfaction; autonomous emotional laborers, in contrast, were more likely to report better health and satisfaction.

So what are the implications of our findings?

Our finding regarding the relevance of autonomy in the relationship between emotional labor and well-being highlights a key element of Hochschild’s original concept; that is, scripted rules for ‘feeling’ are alienating because they reduce the possibility of personal adaptation, resulting in a sense of inauthenticity.

In examining emotional labor across the American occupational structure, our study reveals the contingent ways in which these requirements are linked to well-being.

Contrast the discretion of a police officer, for example, to the experiences of a flight attendant operating in the rigid constraints of a flight cabin. Both may face emotionally-challenging encounters with the public, and both may be required to follow organizational-prescribed rules for interaction; yet the autonomy of the former may create opportunities for adaptation that creates satisfying rather than alienating work experiences. Granting emotional laborers autonomy may, therefore, be a critical ingredient for creating healthy work experiences, especially in growing sectors such as aging care work.

In sum, our results lead to a number of additional questions about the occupational work context. In future research, it may be worth investigating how the health outcomes of emotional laborers are dependent on a broader range of valued work resources (i.e., income, job security, organizational values, etc.).

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