Emotional Labor: Psychological Stress In The Workplace

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“During my work as a police officer, I encountered many emotional demanding situations in which my colleagues and I often seemed to act unfelt emotions or suppressed emotions that would better not be displayed at that particular moment. For instance, during my first weeks of duty I wondered how police officers could stay seemingly untouched while being confronted with drunk and offensive people. One colleague once told me: “I don’t take it personally, it’s part of the job and so it doesn’t frustrate me anymore” (Gelderen, B. 2013).

This above anecdote speaks to the experience of a rookie police officer fresh out of the academy. This officer learned through personal experience and colleague support as to how to handle, manage and deescalate stressful circumstances and volatile scenes. As a part of a paid police officer’s professional and organizational duties and responsibilities, they have to learn how to adjust to the mental and emotional demands in the environment they work. They have to internalize the appropriate actions, responses, use prudence, suppress and mask true emotions before, while and after interacting with the citizens, suspects, coworkers, and supervisors who all have different temperaments and personalities. “Emotional labor is defined as the act of expressing, organizationally desired emotions during service transactions” (Organizational Behavior 82). This research paper will define the concepts of emotional labor; describe, explain, and discuss various perspectives on emotional labor and its psychological harm within the workplace; conduct limited field research aimed at assessing varying understandings and experiences of emotional labor in at least three work settings; Analyze and summarize findings from my field research.

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Emotional Labor

Emotional labor is the ability to alter, regulate, manage and/or suppress genuine thoughts, emotions and feelings while dealing with stressful and challenging circumstances created by customers and coworkers. Wikipedia states, “Emotional labor is the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfill the emotional requirements of a job. More specifically, workers are expected to regulate their emotions during interactions with customers, co-workers and superiors' (Wikipedia. 2019). Unregulated emotional labor can cause an employee to experience work related stress that will affect them mentally (i.e. anxiety, depression, emotional exhaustion, low self-esteem), physically (i.e. fatigue, headaches, weight loss) and socially (i.e. verbal aggression, poor communication, withdrawn). “Work-stress was related to all adverse staff health outcomes (i.e., high psychological stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue) and most adverse work outcomes.” (Thorsteinsson, E. B., Brown, R. F., & Richards, C., 2014).

Most employers, managers, supervisors understand employees are human and have feelings but expect employees “to manage grief, depression, and anguish” (Context Magazine, 80) in a healthy manner, while performing their organizational duties and responsibilities. Employees who lack the ability to manage emotional labor in the workplace will become stressed, depressed, and they will be unproductive in the workplace. Emotional labor does not only have a psychological effect on employees but it also has an adverse effect on an organizations ability to grow due to employee turnover and dissatisfaction. “The effects of emotional labor within the organization are largely negative. Employees experience stress, depression, panic disorder, psychological distress, and job dissatisfaction. For the organizations, negative effects are exacerbated by employee dissatisfaction, performance reduction, and turnover” (Lee, Y. H., Lee, S., & Chung, J. Y. 2019). Persistent emotional labor can be the leading cause of emotional exhaustion. Emotional exhaustion can take a serious toll on an employee physically and mentally. Someone experiencing emotional exhaustion will likely have negative attitudes toward others, and the workplace. Emotional exhaustion in the workplace is a clue that an employee is psychologically and emotionally drained. “Emotional exhaustion is caused by persistent and excessive emotional labor. Emotional exhaustion refers to exhausted and depleted emotions due to work and is a chronic response to work stress situations that are associated with conceptually high levels of human contact (Ryan, 1971; Maslach, 1982” (Lee,Y. H., Lee, S., & Chung, J. Y. 2019). The totality of this research concludes that the psychological cost of emotional labor includes but is not limited to emotional exhaustion, stress, poor communication, aggression, conflict, burnout, antisocial behavior, depression, panic disorder, psychological distress, fatigue, job dissatisfaction and poor work performance.


Three professionals were interviewed from three different workplace settings. These interviews were conducted to gain an understanding and perspective into how these professional handle emotional labors in their places of employment.

Director of HIM

As Director of HIM, Kathrine is greatly satisfied with her job and work environment. Kathrine is expected to present herself in a courteous, professional and respectful manner at all times. In the role of a director Kathrine is expected to be polite with or without instruction because of the type of clients they we serve who are easily triggered. Kathrine’s department policy states that she is to treat clients, staff members as customers with exceptional customer service. All employees are expected to be professional and treat everyone with courtesy and respect. Kathrine is expected to encourage and support patients by abiding by the guidelines set forth by HIPAA. In her field she assists clients with copies of their medical records and must abide by HIPAA. She keeps a log of who requested records, when they were picked up, how much they paid, etc. as a way to be organized so anyone can assist them when needed. Kathrine smiles when she would prefer to scream or from because department policy states she must be professional at all times. Kathrine feels stressed when she feels one way but has to pretend she feels another way. As an example, Kathrine states “We are in the process of moving to a new building and my unit is sometimes overlooked. As the Director, I am not asked directly about what is needed. I have had to interject myself in order to ensure my unit needs are accessed and addressed.” Kathrine does not deal with a lot of stress in the workplace, but states that in the past when she was stressed it brought about some manageable frustration. In efforts to suppress her true feelings Kathrine communicates and vents those feeling to someone she trust.

Social Worker

As a social worker Crystal is highly satisfied with her job. However, she is not satisfied with the workplace environment. Crystal is expected to present herself in a professional manner to patients. This includes dressing professional and/or present information accurately. Crystal does not have any direct instructions to be polite, but she is expected to be respectful towards patients at all times. The organization policy that Crystal uses as a roadmap to influence her work and conduct states that an independent contractor must maintain a high standards in professionalism, competence, objectivity, and integrity. Crystal is expected to encourage and support patients as part of her job as a therapist and intake clinician. She supports patients who are newly diagnosed with mental illness, as well as encourage those patients with a long history of mental health issues to remain diligent in receiving and engaging in ongoing treatment. At times Crystal would like to scream because it is not easy dealing with a patient who may be in an active manic or psychotic state. She has learned to adjust based on the situation. She may start out smiling to put the patient at ease, but it could easily turn into a frown. She has found herself talking in a more assertive and firm tone when a patient is refusing to listen. Crystal states that her stress levels fluctuate in the mental health field. Most days are stressful, but as a professional, she is taught to manage her stress by consulting with colleagues, stepping away from a situation and practicing self-care. Work stress is inevitable, but as a professional, you learn the best way to deal with stress. Some are better equipped than others. Seeking out the support of a team member has been very effective in assisting Crystal in managing her emotions. In Crystal’s field she has felt tired, frustrated, amused, irritable and sad at one time or another. It truly depends on the situation and the patient involved. Crystal stated that frustration comes when a patient refuses to take medication and you see them slowly declining and despite your best efforts, they still refuse. She also stated that amusement comes when a patient denies being manic when you can clearly see that they haven't slept in days, are disheveled, are going on tangents and can't sit still. She also feels irritable when patient's miss appointments and as the professional, she knows how critical it is that the patient maintain consistent and ongoing treatment. Her sadness occurs when a patient describes in detail their increased feelings of sadness, hopelessness and worthlessness. She knows despite her best efforts, it will be difficult to pull this patient out of their depression. Being the professional she is Crystal is able to mask her true feelings by smiling.

Quality Assurance Manager

As a Quality Assurance Manager, Donnie is highly satisfied with his job and workplace environment. Donnie is expected and instructed to present himself in a respectful, polite and professional business manner at all times. Donnie states that he has an organizational policy that he must follow that speaks to how he is to conduct himself and treat coworkers in the workplace environment. Donnie explains that there are policies in place that he must adhere to because he is a representation of the company/organization that employees him. As manager it is part of Donnie’s job to encourage, support and uplift his team and other team members so they can perform to their highest ability. Donnie provides an example that during weekly meetings the staff is notified of praise received from the customer or other team members. The workplace is not always going to be peachy. Donnie explains that there was an incident where another employee A tried to get another employee B reprimanded as a result of employee B’s refusal to report to them directly. Employee A is not employee B’s direct supervisor. Donnie stated that employee A’s attempt to get another employee reprimanded angered and agitated him because their actions was perceived to be devious and underhanded. Instead of confronting employee A in an aggressive manner Donnie decided to suppress his anger and remove himself from the situation. “Suppressing anger characterizes a deferential form of emotional labor traditionally associated with jobs performed by women. Yet women do not experience higher levels of burnout and inauthenticity than men because of the types of jobs they perform, but rather because managing feelings of agitation has a different effect on women than it does on men” (Erickson, R. 2001). Donnie states that removing himself from intense situations and not expressing his true feelings permitted things to eventually work out over time. Donnie states that he does not feel stressed when he feels one way and have to pretend he feels another way. He states that positive or negative feelings are normal and his experience with people has prepared him for those he will encounter in the workplace. Work stress makes Donnie feel tired and irritable. Donnie explains that he does not like feeling tired or irritable because it affects his work productivity. In an effort to avoid workplace distractions he focuses on why he is at work and focus on task prioritization. Task prioritization permits him to organize and/or complete things in order of their importance in the mist of workplace discord and distraction. To suppress his feelings, Donnie usually shutdown, keep quiet, and isolate himself from others. Laughing, smiling and joking are minimal.


Emotional labor is the ability to alter, regulate, manage and/or suppress genuine thoughts, emotions and feelings while dealing with stressful and challenging circumstances created by customers and coworkers. Based on the three interviews it can be determined that job satisfaction, and psychological distresses are two causes of emotional labor that can cause poor work performance, aggression, unnecessary conflicts, antisocial behavior, depression, panic disorder and fatigue. Job stress “can lead to negative physiological, psychological, and behavioral responses among employees” (Jeung, D. Y., Kim, C., & Chang, S. J. 2018). Effective ways to navigate through emotional labor while at work includes but is not limited to venting to someone you trust; being honest about your emotions, internalizing your true emotions so that you can model the appropriate verbal and/or non-verbal behaviors in the face of rude, condescending, disgruntled, annoying or impatient coworkers and/or supervisors and still accomplish the daily demands of your job.

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Emotional Labor: Psychological Stress In The Workplace. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 24, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/emotional-labor-psychological-stress-in-the-workplace/
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Emotional Labor: Psychological Stress In The Workplace. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/emotional-labor-psychological-stress-in-the-workplace/> [Accessed 24 Jun. 2024].
Emotional Labor: Psychological Stress In The Workplace [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 17 [cited 2024 Jun 24]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/emotional-labor-psychological-stress-in-the-workplace/

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