In today’s workplace many people have to display certain emotions as part of their daily jobs, regardless of how they actually feel. This phenomenon of ‘emotional labour’ occurs often, for example, in the work of flight attendants, call centre operators, sales staff and front-line bank employees. It can even extend at times to teachers or administrators.
This phenomenon is more common today because of the key role the service sector plays in the economy.
In this sector, part of the product is how customers are treated during inter-personal contact. When we buy a plane ticket we do not just buy the physical trip from one place to another, we also have certain expectations of the ‘experience’. Perhaps the most important part of this is how we are treated during various parts of the process, starting from the check-in and progressing until the actual flight. The expectation is that we are welcomed with smiles, friendly if not aesthetic voices, and that our needs are always cared for. As passengers demand this sort of behaviour from the airline, the airline itself demands the same of its employees.
We tend to take such displays of positive emotion (i.e., friendliness, politeness) for granted regardless of the personal circumstances of the person who provides the service. The call centre employee or flight attendant may be experiencing very negative personal circumstances (e.g., death of a loved one, illness, divorce, etc), but this is not something we take into account: friendly service must exist no matter what.
Displaying particular emotions does require conscious effort. Imagine, for example, having to smile constantly and be as friendly as possible for eight hours every day. Emotional labour has therefore been linked to a number of negative outcomes. One consequence is heightened emotional exhaustion. This means that our psychological resources become depleted and we cannot go on anymore. Emotional exhaustion leads to a number of complications, such as lower job satisfaction, increased desire to quit the job, less commitment towards the employer plus lower effort and performance.
Though employees have little choice of whether to display the emotions required as part of the job, they do have two options: They can simply display these emotions without experiencing them, or else actually try to ‘feel’ the emotions they display. The former technique is called ‘surface acting’ whilst experts call the latter ‘deep acting’.
An example of surface acting is that of a call centre operator who may be the victim of a negative personal situation but still has to wear a mask of friendliness and courtesy for customers. In a case of deep acting, however, the operator tries to internalise the displayed emotion so actually feeling empathy for the client.
Research tends to show that surface acting is more harmful than deep acting. When employees consistently pretend in terms of their feelings they tend to suffer from more emotional exhaustion. This leads to a negative attitude and to less effort in their jobs. The suggestion is, therefore, that we should try to train employees to deep act so they succeed in internalising the emotions they display.
India is home to a very large number of the world’s call centre operations. Simply in terms of the number of employees in direct contact with clients, India’s call centres count in excess of 300,000 employees. However, little research exists on emotional labour in India. Most of our knowledge in the subject comes from studies carried out in so-called Western societies.
With other researchers, I studied two call centres in India, one foreign-owned with foreign management mandates, the other under Indian ownership with Indian management. What we wanted to find out was whether there were differences in how operators were managed in the two call centres, whether there were differences in emotional exhaustion and employee attitudes, and whether the style of leadership in the two call centres could explain any differences.
It emerged that in the foreign-owned call centres, employees were given more responsibility and power to make their own decisions, while being offered more coaching and mentoring by their line managers.
It also emerged that in the domestic call centre, emotional labour was more intense. Phone workers there needed to display stronger feelings and a larger variety of emotions. As a result, they often had to fake their emotions through surface acting. This led to greater emotional exhaustion and less job satisfaction.
One of the main findings was that giving these call centre workers support and empowering them to deal with the effects of emotional labour themselves does protect against emotional exhaustion. When this is the case employees are happier and better adapted to their work.
Another finding was that in call centres managed by foreign firms the leadership is more supportive so benefitting the well-being of employees.
Foreign call centres tend to practice the sort of management prevalent in the USA and UK which seeks to bring managers and their employees closer together. This seems to have beneficial consequences even in India, where traditionally there is a greater distance between managers and subordinates.
Nevertheless, generalisation is perhaps a dangerous contemplation as these findings may only be applicable to call centres that employ highly educated associates. In both call centres concerned by the study, at least half of the workforce had Bachelor’s degrees or were working towards such degrees. Education renders people more mature and more willing to assume responsibilities. In call centres that employ a less qualified workforce, the traditional Indian way of managing with tighter control thanks to a greater distance between managers and associates may give better results.
One thing is certain, however. To neglect the emotional strain on such employees means a failure to recognise a key aspect of their work which has a direct result on performance, motivation and even absence rates. Emotional labour should be at the heart of many managers approach. Not to recognise its importance would be a clear case of short-sightedness.Nikos Bozionelos, professor of organisational behaviour and human resources management, Audencia Nantes School of Management, France