The impact of emotional labour on holistic wellness and the role of HR professionals

Tuesday, 5 November 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Changing or regulating your actual inner feelings in order to effect a desired behavioural outcome is called ‘deep acting’. Whichever one is compelled to carry out, greater the dissonance results in greater burnout


Recently, top HR professionals representing leading organisations in the country were invited by the Association of HR Professionals for a discussion and brainstorming session on the ‘Holistic Wellness’ of people in organisations.

This well-attended program facilitated by Deloittes consultants and other local facilitators was number two in a series of ‘HR think tank’ initiatives of the Association to foster best practices in society and the workplace.

The concept of holistic wellness was identified as the wellness of body, mind and heart. Body being the physical wellness aspect, mind being the emotional aspect and heart being the spiritual aspect or quotient. For further clarity, we may call holistic wellness ‘functional-thinking-feeling’ wellbeing. Those present came up with a set of best practices and action plans based on facts and data presented and discussed by the facilitators.

Having been present at the discussion, a point highlighted by the writer is that whilst physical wellbeing is a strong underpinning of peak performance, it is the engagement of the heart which propels motivation to act.

Whilst a sound mind facilitates rational and focused thinking, it is the spirit, or the heart that would influence motivated action or demotivated dysfunction.

The writer opines that the heart – defined as feeling – has to be “managed” above all in ensuring holistic wellness towards organisation and human productivity.  

My aim here is to highlight the importance of managing the hearts of our people, which calls for dealing with emotional labour.

All of us are engaged with emotional labour every day. In an organisational or a job/profession related perspective, emotional labour takes place when one is required to conduct oneself and/or perform ones job in organisationally scripted ways.

The concept of and the term emotional labour was introduced nearly four decades ago by an American Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, who defined emotional labour as “having to induce or suppress feelings in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper status of mind in others”.

In her book ‘The Managed Heart: Commercialisation of Human Feelings’, Hochschild says it was an exposure to an airline cabin crew training program that started her thinking about emotional labour. Extending her definition further, actions such as having to fake a smile and work the whole day regardless how you are feeling or acting cheerful even under extreme stress is emotional labour. 

Contextualised for the purpose of people management, emotional labour can be defined as performing actions dictated by the organisation within regulated parameters, irrespective of how you really feel. A plethora of worldwide clinical, psychological and workplace research that followed has established that intense emotional labour is required when the dissonance, or gap, between the emotions that you are required to display and how you really feel is wide and requires ‘deep acting’. 

Regulation or modification of expression to either fake or suppress emotions is called ‘surface acting’. Changing or regulating your actual inner feelings in order to effect a desired behavioural outcome is called ‘deep acting’. Whichever one is compelled to carry out, greater the dissonance results in greater burnout.

Although emotional labour was identified in the service industry at the outset, professionals in many spheres of activity are engaged in emotional labour. Human resources professionals are one of its prime performers. Their jobs by design and description demands not only popular actions but also unpopular actions. Promotional interviews, disciplinary discussions and actions, benefit negotiations and grievance handling are some of the areas that would demand objectivity and scripted action. 

Health care workers such as nurses and attendants dealing with the sick are required to positively tackle all the pleasant and not-so-pleasant realities of care-giving. Law enforcement officers such as the police and the judiciary taking penal action are subject to great levels of emotional labour. 

Even jobs that do not require direct personal contact, but only non-face-to-face verbal interactions such as telephone operators and call centre agents, have to act according to organisationally dictated “display rules”. Therefore, telephone communications also require emotional labour. However, research has found that direct face-to-face interactions result in greater burnout than indirect.

Arguably, at some point in life, each one of us as professionals or human beings will need to perform emotional labour in our day-to-day jobs. 

As HR professionals, it is incumbent on us to understand and appreciate this reality and explore ways of mitigating the impact or managing the amount of emotional labour if we are to ensure the holistic wellness of our people and their productivity. 

Through my ongoing research in the area, I propose that there are two aspects that can be used to manage the impact of emotional labour. One is intrinsic motivation, or the “self-start” mode in a person. The other is well-planned employee engagement and support by the organisation. 

On the aspect of employee engagement there are a few key actions that can be initiated by the company: 

A robust employee job orientation program that goes beyond the parameters of preliminary or on-the-job training and development, where the critical success factors or touch points are explained to the employees and alignment in thinking established.

A planned psychological support system, such as appointed mental counselling reach-outs, being made available in the organisation.  

A real-time on-the-job peer-support mechanism facilitating an employee lifeline in times of need or stress.

Keeping check on the circumstances of employees and behavioural changes through superiors, peers and subordinates. This is an area which requires delicate handling to ensure there is no undue invasion of privacy.

Reviewing display rules of the organisation. Display rules refer to the emotional display at work demanded from employees, especially in the service industry. A periodic review of the nature, frequency and relevance of display rules based on external and internal feedback can help manage psychological burn out.

Whilst the above suggestions can be applied to any organisational context, in the case of public roles such as law enforcement, judicial and administrative, greater policy emphasis would be needed as their work ethic and establishment do not consider the public servant’s psychological wellbeing. This reality is more relevant to the local and South Asian context, as the West and developed Asian economics such as Japan have already identified and are addressing this. 

The aspect of ‘intrinsic motivation’ deals with being internally self-motivated without external stimulation. In a very basic form, there are, “interesting things that we are drawn to do without compulsion and there are the not-so-interesting or detested actions that we would rather not perform.” When one is intrinsically motivated, it is a function of being attracted to, in alignment with and committed towards whatever that you are engaged in. 

The “theory of self-determination” deals greatly with this phenomenon. Suffice to say that in an employment context, the tangible and intangible outcomes of your job have to be rewarding to propel your heart and mind into stimulating job performance. In this context, the organisational interventions through employee engagement would also influence intrinsic motivation in an individual.

As emotional labour at the workplace is a function of both your job realities and mindset, the root causes for the need to ‘deep act’ or ‘surface act’ have to be analysed. These factors would be a mix of an employee’s work, family and social environments. Therefore it is vital that HR professionals have a thorough understanding of these underpinnings, not only at surface level but down to the last individual team member. 

What then, one might ask, is the fate of the HR professionals from whom all this is demanded?

Simply put, one must be “holistically peak in performance” to deal with the realities of the job. A hard call, yet inevitable, as the show must go on.

The writer is a senior HR Professional and a management specialist in the corporate sector. He is also an immediate past president of the Association of HR Professionals Sri Lanka.

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