Emotional Labor: Definition, Examples, Types, and Consequences

Emotional labor refers to the work involved in managing one’s own emotions and expressions when interacting with others, especially when serving customers or clients.

It often involves suppressing negative emotions like frustration to present a calm, pleasant demeanor.

Emotional labor was first studied in relation to the workplace but has since grown to be used to describe the unpaid, often invisible work done by one person to meet the needs of others in the workplace, but also in social situations and the private sphere. 

When someone engages in emotional labor, they can regulate their emotions to ensure that others feel more comfortable. Individuals manage their emotions by actively shaping and directing their feelings, recognizing that social structure and institutions impose on these efforts. 

worker smiling

emotional labor Examples

Below are some examples of where individuals may use emotional labor: 

In service workers

Emotional labor was initially defined as the process by which workers are expected to manage their feelings in accordance with organizationally defined rules and guidelines (Hochschild, 1983). 

Emotional labor is frequently expected of service workers and seen as a job requirement.

Perhaps one of the most common forms of emotional labor is the idea of ‘service with a smile,’ where service workers act friendly towards customers and clients (Pugh, 2001).

Service jobs generally require workers to express pleasant, positive emotions that many people enjoy experiencing from others.

If the workplace is unpleasant or customers are rude, it may mean that workers must still put in the emotional labor to please others. 

In healthcare and medicine

Emotional labor is also performed in other workplace settings, such as in healthcare, where workers are expected to show sympathy (Humphrey et al., 2008) and anticipate and respond to the needs of others. 

Medical students often learn emotional detachment to manage their emotional reactions to patients (Smith & Kleinman, 1989).

This hidden curriculum for the students enables them to establish their professional authority. 

In leadership

Individuals in management positions or other leadership roles may have to use emotional labor to influence the moods, emotions, motivations, and performance of their employees or followers (Humphrey et al., 2008).

For example, leaders may have to express optimism even when faced with a crisis so that their employees do not panic. 

In family life

Emotional labor may be less evident in the family, but it is often used to ensure that partners and children are happy and emotionally cared for.

Emotional labor in families is present in the way that one person may be expected to handle childcare, the needs of the children, remembering appointments, reminding others, and initiating discussions about emotional topics. 

What is the theory behind emotional labor?

Arlie Hochschild was thought to be the first to coin the term ‘emotional labor’ in her 1983 book ‘The Managed Heart.’

She introduced the concept to describe how workers are expected to manage their feelings by rules and guidelines imposed upon them. 

Hochschild (1983) illustrated emotional labor with the example of flight attendants. These workers are often instructed to always be smiling, polite, and friendly to passengers, which Hochschild claims is emotional work.

Thus, even if the flight attendants are in a bad mood, they are still expected to put in emotional labor to ensure that they are presenting themselves in a certain way that is pleasant or comforting to the passengers. 

The management of emotions is essentially a private act influenced by cultural and social norms about what is appropriate to feel and express but not directly regulated by others.

Emotional labor, in comparison, is a term used for the process of moving emotion management from the private realm to the public world of work (Wharton, 2009).

Hochschild (1983) argued that organizations commercialize employees’ feelings by requiring them to display emotions as part of their work duties. She uses the term ‘feeling rules’ to describe the organizational norms about the appropriate type and amount of emotion that should be experienced in a particular situation. 

According to Hochschild (1983), the ‘feeling rules’ are attempts by organizations to control employees’ inner lives or thoughts and feelings that are usually private and personal.

Since service jobs such as flight attendants depend on workers’ ability to manage their emotions, organizations have sought to control this process, thus making emotional labor a formal job requirement. 

Later, researchers argued that the appropriate term should be ‘display rules’ rather than ‘feeling rules.’

This is because organizations cannot directly regulate employees’ private, emotional states, only their outward displays of emotion (Ashforth & Humphrey, 1993). 

The distinction between these rules is argued to be important because ‘display rules’ implies that organizations are most concerned with controlling the outward expressions of their employees rather than the employees’ inner states. 

Hochschild (1983) suggested that jobs requiring more emotional labor are performed primarily by women. These jobs typically involve creating feelings of well-being or affirmation in others – responsibilities usually assigned to women.

Some of these jobs include service work, hospitality, and healthcare, which are regarded as using the abilities women are thought to employ in the private sphere (Abbott et al., 2006).

Frontline service workers were the initial focus of research into emotional labor. As research has gradually expanded, it has also included interactive work, including professional interactions with clients and co-workers.

Emotional labor has also been expanded into investigating caring and family work. 

Any job that involves interactions with others is thought to require emotional labor to some degree. This has also been examined in other aspects of the work, such as considering the workers’ power dynamics, status, and gender (Wharton, 2009). 

Types of emotional labor

Hochschild (1983) described two ways employees alter their emotional expressions in the workplace; surface acting and deep acting.

Surface and deep acting represent how employees manage their emotions to meet work demands. 

Surface acting

Surface acting focuses on public displays of emotional expression. This is when workers change their outward emotional expressions but do not attempt to feel the emotions that they are displaying (Humphrey et al., 2008).

An individual may present emotional expressions on the surface that do not correspond with how they are feeling on the inside. 

A common form of surface acting is when a service worker enhances or fakes a smile when interacting with a demanding customer or in a bad mood.

While they may not feel like smiling, they will often do so to make the customer feel more comfortable or pleasant. 

Deep acting

Emotional labor involving deep acting is an effort to truly feel the emotions one is expected to display (Wharton, 2009). This goes a step further than showing surface-level emotional expressions.

Instead, individuals attempt to change their privately felt emotions so that they can actually feel what they want to display. 

Emotions involve physiological arousal and cognitions, so deep acting modifies these through various techniques (Brotheridge & Grandey, 2002). They may purposely engage in thoughts and activities that help foster these emotions.

Alternatively, they may use trained imagination, where they actively recall past events and experience the emotion they want to portray (Humphrey et al., 2015). 

Emotional labor in families

Women often enact the emotional labor of managing their own emotions in their families.

Similar to the workplace, the family forms a distinct and emotionally draining ‘client’ in that one person makes sure everyone is emotionally and physically catered to and supported (Dean et al., 2021). 

In a typical nuclear family unit, it is thought that women become responsible for much of the emotional labor by default, meaning they are responsible for shaping and managing the family’s feelings (Hochschild, 1983). 

In their heterosexual relationships, women often manage household tasks, prompting their partner to do things, reminding them of important dates, and often organizing gifts and social events on behalf of their male partner.

All these tasks are said to be emotional labor since they involve emotionally and physically supporting someone else. 

Mothers in the nuclear family unit often catalog, remember, think about, and do the emotional work of the whole family (Bass, 2015; Wong, 2017).

This labor is completed by fathers, too, but caring for children’s needs is considered a central expectation of motherhood that is distinct and more intense than fatherhood (Dean et al., 2021). 

Since the family can be composed of multiple individuals with unique personalities, demands, and needs, the mental load is varied and complex.

Often, mothers are expected to have open-ended time to meet the family’s unexpected needs, adding additional layers to the emotional labor load (Dean et al., 2021). 

Mothers often do emotional labor for their families while at their paid work. This labor can thus be carried anywhere and performed anytime while invisible to others. 

There has been a significant increase in women entering the workforce but without a substantial increase in men’s domestic labor, which means that women remain the primary caregivers regardless of their work commitments (Dean et al., 2021). 

The emotional labor for the family is enduring because it is tied to the care of loved ones, so women cannot opt out of the constant monitoring of others’ emotional well-being (Hochschild, 2012).

Even for older children, mothers are expected to ‘safeguard’ their futures, such as ensuring that they are enriching their children’s options for future employment and ensuring they are safe (Milkie & Warner, 2014). 

Positive and negative consequences of emotional labor

When considering emotional labor in the workplace, research has found positive and negative consequences associated with this. 

Hochschild (1983) suggested that performing emotional labor can induce what she called ‘emotional dissonance.’ She explained that this is when workers are required to display emotions regardless of whether these correspond with their true feelings. 

Over time, she said this might lead to workers developing a sense of distress and a range of identity-related issues that impact psychological well-being. 

Numerous studies have found that workers who regularly have to display emotions that conflict with their own feelings are more likely than others to experience emotional exhaustion. 

Surface acting at work, such as faking or suppressing emotions, is related to workers’ levels of emotional exhaustion (Van Dijk & Brown, 2006; Glomb & Tews, 2004). 

Surface acting has also been shown to enhance workers’ feelings of depersonalization while reducing their sense of personal accomplishment at work (Brotheridge & Grandey, 2002). 

Emotional dissonance at work has also been linked to emotional exhaustion (Morris & Feldman, 1997). Specifically, having to hide or cover up feelings of agitation at work is associated with this exhaustion (Erickson & Ritter, 2001). 

Caregiving jobs are thought to involve much emotional labor, are emotionally demanding, and are often performed in unequal relationships in which the recipient’s needs are met. In contrast, the carer’s needs are disadvantaged (Wharton, 2009). 

However, not all caregiving jobs are exploitative in this way. Providing care to others may be experienced as emotionally satisfying and intrinsically rewarding for many people.

There are consistent findings that while surface acting contributes to emotional exhaustion, this is not the case for deep acting (Grandey, 2003). Deep acting has positively affected workers by increasing their sense of personal accomplishment (Brotheridge & Grandey, 2002).

Deep acting has also been shown to positively relate to job satisfaction, organizational commitment, job performance, and customer satisfaction (Humphrey et al., 2015). 

Generally, workers’ emotional regulation strategies seem to have the most significant effect on how emotional labor affects their well-being.

If workers genuinely experience the emotions they are expected to display in their job, they seem better able to resist negative consequences. 

Likewise, happier workers are less likely to need to put on an act with customers (Wharton, 2009). 

To conclude, the effects of emotional labor at work may depend on the enjoyment of the job, how pleasant the workplace is, and an individual’s ability to regulate emotions in healthy ways. 


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How is emotional labor related to emotional contagion?

Emotional labor involves managing emotions to display desired emotions in a work setting, often requiring suppressing genuine feelings and projecting specific emotions.

Emotional contagion is when one person’s emotions trigger similar emotions in others. The two are related in that individuals performing emotional labor, especially in roles requiring frequent interpersonal interactions, can inadvertently spread their suppressed or induced emotions to others through emotional contagion, affecting the emotional tone of the environment.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.