I finally landed at the international airport, on my way home after a week-long trip abroad. It was an early arrival and I approached passport control, greeted the official, who answered: “Yeah”. I asked somewhat irritated: “Is that all I am going to get – just yeah?” He answered rather rudely: “Well, what do you expect?” I didn’t comment, except to say: “Good morning would have been nice”. He didn’t look me in the eye, but just processed the passport and handed it back to me. Upon reflection, I have been wondering about the emotional labour required by employees who interact with customers on a daily basis – the expected professional and courteous approach, the smile, the eye contact and the warmth of interaction. It’s quite an “ask” really, especially if you are not paid well, don’t have any form of relationship with your boss and have no input into decision-making that might affect your role.

“Emotional labour”, as a concept, was first used by sociologist Arlie Hochschild (1983) to analyse the jobs of flight attendants and bill collectors and has been defined as “the effort, planning and control needed to express organisationally desired emotions during personal interactions”. According to Ashforth and Humphrey (Emotional Labour in Service Roles), “emotional labour is a double-edged sword” – in its functional capacity, emotional labour can serve to facilitate task effectiveness by providing the service employee with a means to regulate what are often dynamic and emergent interactions and thus provide the worker with a degree of self-efficacy. On the other hand, emotional labour can become dysfunctional for the worker when dissonance between felt emotions and displayed emotions is experienced. Simply stated, emotional dissonance is faked emotional discourse – incongruence between feeling and action. This dissonance may ultimately lead to lowered self-esteem, depression, cynicism and alienation from work.

Whilst some forms of emotional dissonance are unavoidable, (e.g. responding to an irate customer with calmness and professionalism because this is the expectation of your role), other causes of emotional stress are avoidable (e.g. irritation, frustration and even anger with your boss because of emotional distance, a lack of engagement, insufficient information, feelings of not being valued, isolation, etc.). Bosses play a huge role in avoiding unnecessary stress by:

  • Bedding down a company culture where employees are respected and their dignity is upheld
  • Communicating an employee’s value to him or her and linking the same to company objectives
  • Engaging effectively, bringing humanness and care into conversations
  • Supplying adequate doses of important pieces of information
  • Communicating the “big picture” of the organisation and providing an understanding of the near future too (certainty)
  • Recognising good work and acknowledging effort
  • Paying better than industry-related salaries
  • Creating a professional, safe and comfortable physical work environment
  • Celebrating successes with employees and having fun together

Feelings of being valued, having a significant part to play and some certainty regarding the near future provide employees with the emotional resilience they need to handle difficult customer interactions. Managers should not cause emotional stress and subsequent dissonance.

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