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Emotional Labor

Many working positions require job holders to display certain emotional reactions that are expected by clients, colleagues or supervisors, but these required reactions sometimes or often contradict the worker´s own actual feelings. Emotional labor demands may be found particularly in service jobs, where interaction with other people is a substantial part of the work task. Research results indicate that high demands to control emotional reactions are related to several undesired psychological outcomes: such as, stress and emotional exhaustion. This result has implications for the design of working positions, but also highlights the importance of proper staff selection processes and training of job holders.

Definition of emotional labor

Emotional labor is defined as “...the management of feeling to create a publicly facial and bodily display (pp. 8) in the workplace [1]. Organisations have often established certain display rules that identify, which emotions are appropriate in certain work situations. The primary aim of showing an appropriate emotional display is often to influence the feelings and reactions of other people in a desired direction. Call-centre agents, for example, should induce the feeling of being comfortable and appreciated in customers to sell their products. The display of such required emotional reactions demands regulation. Accordingly, Zapf and Holz [2] define emotional work as emotional regulation to display organisationally desired emotions by the employer. The emotional reactions have to be displayed irrespectively of the workers feelings in a situation. The display of such emotional reactions is usually not explicitly expressed in company documentations, but it is often implicitly known to the employees and based on societal norms.

Hochschild [3] has proposed three main characteristics of emotionally demanding jobs, where these jobs: (1) require face-to-face or voice to voice contact with the public; (2) require the worker to produce an emotional state in another person; and (3) allow the employer, through training and supervision, to exercise a degree of control over the emotional activities of employees. Several demands to regulate emotions may be differentiated: including, requirements to display positive emotions, to display negative emotions, to be sensitive to other people’s emotions or to express emotions that are not actually felt [2]

The relevance of emotional labor

Displaying certain organisationally desired emotional reactions has become progressively more important in the world of work, as more people are employed in service jobs. In the European Union more then 50% of all employees work in the service sector [4]. Flight attendants, for example, have to be friendly and understanding at all times, while policemen may be forced to show resoluteness in relevant situations. However, emotional labor is not only necessary in the service sector, but is also required in many other jobs. Zapf [5] has therefore introduced “person-related-jobs" as a general label for jobs that demand face-to-face or voice-to-voice contact with other people.

Regulation of emotions

When the emotions felt by an employee in a particular situation do not match the prescribed organisational display rules, emotional regulation is necessary. Emotional regulation may be defined as the automatic or controlled process by which individuals influence different dimensions of their emotions [6]. The execution of these processes demands effort, planning and control. It is these demands that define emotional labour. [7]

Hochschild [1] and Gross [6] have identified different forms of emotional regulation. Hochschild differentiated “surface-acting" and “deep-acting" forms of emotional labour. Surface acting refers to the display of the characteristics of an emotion that are regarded as appropriate, but are not actually felt; whilst deep acting, in contrast, refers to the activity that is undertaken to actually feel an emotion that is thought to be required. For example, if a flight attendant were to use surface acting emotional regulation he or she might, for example, smile and try to look unimpressed despite a customer is insulting and upsetting him or her. In contrast, if she were to use deep acting emotional regulation he or she might tell themselves that the insult is only a sign of the customer’s bad character and not of a lack of skills by him/herself. While surface acting and deep acting are two regulation strategies that are consciously controlled, researchers have also found a third way of performing emotional labour, which is referred to as “automatic regulation". [5] Automatic regulation refers to the automatic display of an organisationally desired emotion derived from an emotion that is spontaneously felt.

Consistent with the conceptualisation of surface acting and deep acting strategies of emotion regulation, Gross [6] has formulated the concept of antecedent and response focused emotion regulation. Antecedent focused emotion regulation refers to the manipulation of the input into a system. This means that actions are taken to adjust a situation or the appraisal of a situation in such a way that supports the formation of emotions that fit with the perceived organisational demands. This may be achieved by: avoiding or modifying situations in which undesired emotions may arise; shifting attention away from stimuli that evoke undesired emotional reactions; or by cognitive change, in which a person re-evaluates a situation or the capacity to manage the situation in order to alter the emotions felt.

In contrast, response-focused emotion regulation is necessary when emotions that are already underway do not meet the organisational display rules. In this case, the emotional expression has to be altered. A nurse, for example, may display optimism and light heartedness towards a very ill patient, whilst being pessimistic and sad. Strategies used in response-focused regulation are typically: suppression, intensification, exaggeration or faking of emotional reactions. These regulation strategies are, however, not always successfully employed when aiming to change the emotional display. Suppression, for example, does not generally hide all aspects of the undesired real emotion. [8]. Consequently, emotions like anger in a person may be perceived by others although efforts have been taken to suppress this reaction. Exaggeration of feelings may also be recognised by others particularly by people who are sensitive in detecting such reactions.

Emotional regulation is not only used to fulfil organisational expectations. It can also be used to achieve goals that are not necessarily in line with those prescribed by the organisation, but rather with personal advantages for the worker. An employee may for example pretend to feel the same anger like his boss about another employees behaviour just to improve his chances for job promotion. Therefore, emotional regulation is not limited to the context of emotional labor. However, it is a very useful construct to explain why high emotional work demands are often associated with psychological strain reactions.

Emotional labor and psychological strain reactions

Hochschild [1] noted that emotional labor may cause repeated stress. This applies particularly when the expression of emotions is required that are incompatible with the emotions experienced in a situation. Hochschild called this state “emotional dissonance", and hypothesised that it is generally regulated by surface acting emotional regulation strategies. Accordingly, Gross [6] argued that the relationship between emotional dissonance and psychological strain may be explained by the cost of response-focused regulation. This means that individuals who often experience emotional dissonance and use response focused-regulation/surface acting are more at risk to suffer from negative health outcomes. Gross [9] quotes several studies that have shown that the use of response-focused emotional regulation is associated with elevated physical activation processes: such as, increased pulse frequency, body temperature and skin conductance. These activation processes may lead to physical, as well as mental health impairments, when they occur over longer periods of time.

Morris and Feldman [7] have proposed that the potential of emotional work to result in psychological strain depends highly on the duration, frequency, intensity and variety of interactions with other people. The factors that influence how often and how intensely employees experience emotional dissonance and have to perform emotion regulation may contribute the level of experienced psychological strainand burnout. The cost of such regulatory processes shall be regarded in more detail in the next section.

The role of emotional dissonance and emotional control

A study conducted by Diestel and Schmidt [10] demonstrated that emotional dissonance requires employees to exert self-control. Self-control involves inhibiting, modifying, or overriding spontaneous and automatic reactions, urges, emotions, and desires that would otherwise interfere with goal directed behaviour and impede goal achievement at work [1]. Such self-control activity draws on and, in turn, depletes regulatory resources [2].

These associations have been shown in a series of experiments by Baumeister and his colleagues [12][3]. These studies required participants of an experiment group to perform two successive tasks of which each demanded the participants to exert self-control. The performance (for example, the persistence in working on an unsolvable puzzle) in the second task was always impaired in participants in the experiment group, as compared to a control group that had performed a task without any self-control demands before. Some of these experiments investigated the particular effects of emotional control processes. In a study by Muraven and colleagues [13], in particular, participants were asked to show no emotional reaction to a movie that was intended by the research team to evoke strong emotional reactions, whilst the members of a control group had not received any such instructions. The study observed that participants that had to control their emotions showed significantly poorer performance in a following self-control task.

Research on the practical implications of self-control depletion in the workplace has found that high self-control demands are related to long-term strain consequences: such as, burnout, depressive symptomsand absenteeism [10][14]. This relationship is amplified when the self-control capacity of a person is low. The results of these preliminary studies begin to shed light on the observed associations between emotional dissonance with burnout; as well as, with other strain indicators. When self-control is needed frequently to overcome emotional dissonance, regulatory resources are depleted and negative long-term consequences will occur.

Abraham [15] and Coté [8] have stressed the importance of moderating resourcesin the relationship between emotional dissonance and psychological strain. Abraham [15] found social support social support to moderate the relationship between emotional dissonance and job satisfaction. Cheung and Tang [16] found that the effects of emotional dissonance on burnout are even mediated by work resources; suggesting that the experience of emotional dissonance may only lead to strain when employees lack work resources like satisfying work relations and job reward.

Emotional dissonance, strain reactions and organisational outcomes: Research results on relationships

The relationship between emotional dissonance and strains to the individual, as well as with several organisational outcomes, has been demonstrated in several studies [2][16][15][17][18][19]. The current section aims to outline some of these results.

A study by Heuven and Bakker [17] found that the structural discrepancy between inner feelings and emotional display rules was the main predictor of burnout complaints in a sample of cabin attendants. Other demands, such as quantitative job demands and lack of job control, were observed to be less important predictors. Zapf and Holz [2] found a similar significant relationship between emotional dissonance and burnout in a sample of service workers. Abraham [15] demonstrated relationships of emotional dissonance with job dissatisfaction and emotional exhaustion. A study among Chinese service employees [16] confirmed the findings on the relationship between emotional dissonance and job dissatisfaction, and also found emotional dissonance to predict general work strain.

Apart from the relationships with detrimental health outcomes emotional dissonance has also been found to be related to organisational outcomes. Abrahams [18] showed correlations of emotional dissonance with organizational commitment and intention to turnover. Bakker and Heuven [19] found that also in-role performance in a sample of nurses and police officers was related to emotional dissonance.

Assessing emotional work demands

There exists only limited number of well approved instruments to assess emotional labor. The two most widely used examples will be described in this section.

The Emotional Labour Scale [20] is a questionnaire containing 15 items that measure facets of emotional display in the workplace. These six facets are (1) frequency, (2) intensity and (3) variety of emotional display, the (4) duration of the interaction, as well as (5) surface and (6) deep acting. Evidence of the reliability and validity is provided.

Zapf and colleagues [21] have introduced the Frankfurt Emotion Work Scale, which assesses demands to show positive emotions and negative emotions, to be sensitive towards client’s feelings, and the experience of emotional dissonance. The scale and the subscales show high reliability and validity.

Implications for occupational health

Managers in organisations are generally expected to make rational decisions, control their own emotions and deal with the emotions of their employees. However, the research results show that human beings may not always behave in a rational way. Therefore, eliminating emotions from the workplace is thus not an option. Instead, organisations have to decide if they accept the detrimental effects of emotional labor and particularly emotional dissonance, or if they implement strategies that help employees to decrease negative outcomes of emotional labor. This section aims to discuss several ways to prevent negative health or organisational outcomes as a result of emotional dissonance.

The research results that have been demonstrated in this article indicate a number of possible practical approaches aimed to decrease the detrimental effects of emotional dissonance on worker’s health and the organisation. These implications may refer to the design of working posts, but also to individual qualification; and a consideration of the individual capacity for emotional labor in staff selection processes.

Job design

Organisations may reduce the potential of emotional dissonance experience in employees by adjusting emotional labor demands. Cheung and Tang [22] recommend that “managers should provide employees with the opportunity to perform their roles in a manner that allows reasonable latitude for expressing emotion" (p. 84). Employees should, therefore, be allowed to express emotions according to their real emotional experience for at least parts of their working time. This may be achieved by giving employees opportunities to leave emotionally demanding situations, in which they experience emotional dissonance from time to time. The acceptance for such “time-outs" from emotional demands should be implemented into company culture and policy. If employees show specific problems to cope with emotional demands training should be provided by the company.

The adverse effects of emotional dissonance may also be buffered by strengthening work resources. job Managers should provide their employees with sufficient reward and benefits, job security and the feeling to be important for the company achievements. Time pressure and contradictory task goals should be reduced. Management should also foster social support among the employees by having regular team meetings or organising activities that help to install support networks. Staff opinion surveys may also help managers to identify reasons for emotional dissonance as well as a lack of individual work resources among the employees.

Qualification and training

Employees may be trained to cope more effectively with emotional work demands that often lead to the experience of emotional dissonance. As the cost that is generated by the use of self-control actions has been identified as the main reason for the straining effects of emotional dissonance, improvement of self-control capacity in workers seems to be a promising way to lower strain experience. Results by Oaten and Cheng [23] have shown that self-control may be increased when it is repeatedly exerted. In their study the authors tested the results of a four-month financial monitoring programme, in which participants had to control their money spending behaviour. At the end of the training, participants showed better performance in a laboratory measure of regulatory behaviour.

Alternatively, employees may also be trained to use less straining regulation strategies: like, for example, antecedent focused regulation or deep acting, instead of response-focussed regulation or surface acting. Trainings that focus on regulation strategies help employees to become aware of their interpretation of emotional situations through self-reflection. When these interpretations have become conscious and visible employees are asked to re-evaluate their interpretation. For example, a flight attendant may learn to evaluate permanent complaints of a guest as a problem of the guest, and not of his or her own work performance. This evaluation will enable her or him to stay in a relaxed condition without feeling anger or frustration.

Training should also be provided for managers to enable them to be sensitive towards the emotional needs of their employees, to support employees effectively and, in turn, also to serve as a positive role model that the employees can follow in terms of emotional display.

Staff selection

Companies may give their employees opportunities to sometimes leave situations in which they experience emotional dissonance, and they may provide them with resources to cope with emotional dissonance. However, when client contact is necessary in a job for large proportion of the time, these measures may not be sufficient to prevent negative strain outcomes. Therefore, managers should carefully analyse what the emotional demands of a position are, and, in turn, examine if these demands meet the capacity and emotional predisposition of an applicant. Several techniques may be helpful for this examination: including, the assessment of capacity in a simulated or real job situation; or the use of the critical incident technique in which applicants are asked to describe their reaction in a critical work situation. Applicants reporting or showing difficulties or strong efforts to meet the display rules, might be supported by professional career advice in order to find a post that fits well to their abilities and needs. These staff selection mechanisms demand careful planning and should follow clear criteria to prevent excluding applicants that would actually be qualified to meet the emotional demands.


Emotional labor is an integral part of many jobs in the modern labour force, and may be associated with negative outcomes for employee wellbeing. When a position demands employees to often show feelings that do not correspond with their own feelings and when work resources (like social support or reward) are lacking, the risk for strain experience is often increased. Managers should therefore be aware of emotional labor, and particularly emotional dissonance, when aiming to obtain health among their employees.


[1] Hochschild, A. R., The managed heart, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2003.

[2] Zapf, D., Holz, M. ‘On the positive and negative effects of emotion work in organizations’, European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, Vol. 15, 2006, pp. 1-28.

[3] Hochschild, A. R., The managed heart, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1983

[4] Paoli, P., Second European survey on working conditions, European Foundation for Improvement Living and Working Conditions, Dublin, 1997. Retrieved from:

[5] Zapf, D., ‘Emotion work and psychological well-being. A review of the literature and some conceptual considerations’, Human Resource Management Review, Vol. 12, 2002, pp. 237-68.

[6] Gross, J. J., ‘Antecedent- and response-focused emotion regulation: Divergent consequences or experience, expression, and physiology’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 74, 1998, pp. 224–37.

[7] Morris, J. A., Feldman, D. C., ‘The dimensions, antecedents, and consequences of emotional labor’, Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 21, 1996, pp. 989–1010.

[8] Côté, S., ‘A social interaction model of the effects of emotion regulation on work strain’, Academy of Management Review, Vol. 30, 2005, pp. 509-30.

[9] Gross, J. J., ’Emotion regulation: Affective, cognitive, and social consequences’, Psychophysiology, Vol. 39, 2002, pp. 281-91.

[10] Diestel, S., Schmidt, K.-H. (2010),’ Interactive effects of emotional dissonance and self-control demands on burnout, anxiety, and absenteeism’, Journal of Vocational Behavior, Vol. 77, 2010, pp. 412-24.

[11] Baumeister, R. F., Heatherton, T. F., Tice, D. M., Losing Control: How and Why People Fail at Self-Regulation, Academic Press, San Diego,CA, 1994.

[12] Baumeister, R. F., Bratislavsky, E., Muraven, M., Tice, D. M., ‘Ego Depletion: Is the active self a limited Resource?’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 74, 1998, pp. 1252-65.

[13] Muraven, M., Tice, D. M., Baumeister, R. F., ‘Self-control as a limited resource: Regulatory depletion patterns’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 74, 1998, pp. 774-89.

[14] Schmidt, K.-H., Hupke, M., Diestel, S., ‘Does dispositional self-control capacity attenuate the association of self-control demands at work with indicators of job strain?’, Work & Stress, Vol. 26, 2012, pp. 21-38.

[15] Abraham, R., ‘Emotional dissonance in organizations: Antecedents, consequences, and moderators’, Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs, Vol. 124, 1998, pp. 229-46.

[16] Cheung, F, Tang, F. ‘The Influence of Emotional Dissonance on Subjective Health and Job Satisfaction: Testing the Stress–Strain–Outcome Model’, Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 40, No. 12, 2010, pp. 3192-3217.

[17] Heuven, E., Bakker, A.B., ‘Emotional dissonance and burnout among cabin personnel’, European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, Vol. 12, 2003, pp.81-100.

[18] Abraham, R., ‘The impact of emotional dissonance on organizational commitment and intention to turnover’, Journal of Psychology, Vol. 133, 1999, pp. 441-55.

[19] [19] Bakker, A.B., Heuven, E., ‘Emotional dissonance, burnout, and in-role performance among nurses and police officers’, International Journal of Stress Management, Vol. 13, 2006,pp. 423-40.

[20] Brotheridge, C. M., Lee, R. T., ‘Development and validation of the emotional labour scale’, Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, Vol. 76, 2003, pp. 365-79.

[21] Zapf, D., Vogt, C., Seifert, C., Mertini, H., Isic, A., ‘Emotion work as a source of stress. The concept and development of an instrument’, European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, Vol. 8, 1999, pp. 371-400.

[22] Cheung, F., Tang, C., ’The influence of emotional dissonance and resources at work on job burnout among Chinese human service employees’, International Journal of stress Management, Vol. 14, 2007, pp. 72-87.

[23] Oaten, M., & Cheng, K., ‘Improvements in Self-Control from Financial Monitoring’, Journal of Economic Psychology, Vol. 28, 2007, pp.487-501.

Further reading

Adelmann, P. K., Emotional labor as a potential source of job stress. In Sauter, S. L. & Murphy, L. R. (eds.), Organizational risk factors for job stress, American Psychological Association, Washington, DC, 1995, pp. 371–81

Gross, J. J. (Ed.), Handbook of emotional regulation. New York: Guilford Press, Hausschildt, (2007).

Wharton, A.S., ‘The sociology of emotional labor’, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 35, 20099, pp. 147-65. Available at:

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Tom Cox

Marlen Cosmar