Emotional Labour and the Burnout Syndrome

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Emotional Labour

When we had the discussion on the topic of emotions and mood during class, what attracted my attention the most was the term emotional labour.

Emotional labour, defined as a situation in which an employee expresses organizationally desired emotions during interpersonal transactions at work, is a concept that emerged from studies of service jobs.

Some dilemmas with Emotional Labour:

1. Burnout

It has been found that doctors can lose their ability to care when suffering from emotional burnout (Persaud, 2004). Given that care is an integral part of a doctor’s job, losing care due to emotional labour or burnout will definitely thwart the expectations that a regular patient has of a doctor and this could lead to negative repercussions.

At the same time, burnout can also lead to dissatisfaction with quality of work completed and doubt about the effectiveness of the work.

2. Source of Job Satisfaction

Emotional labour can be a source of job satisfaction depending on whether employee is experiencing surface acting or deep acting as discussed during class. It is conceivable that if a person is deep acting, the emotional labour that he/she is experiencing would be rather rewarding. However, if a person is only surface acting, a great amount of stress could amount. Evidently, emotional labour could be a double-edged sword. Unfortunately, though, it has been found that, to a larger extent, people tend to surface act (Persaud, 2004).

Putting Emotional Labour and Burnout Syndrome together

I happen to chance upon this research paper that compared two perspectives of emotional labour as predictors of burnout beyond the effects of negative affectivity. I found the research rather interesting and meaningful hence I have decided to share the gist of the study.

Just a brief introduction about the burnout syndrome, as stated in the paper – The burnout syndrome entails three distinct states in which employees feel emotional exhaustion, depersonalization (display detached attitude toward others) and diminished personal accomplishment (experience low sense of efficacy at work) (Maslach & Jackson, 1986).

The study found that job-focused emotional labour (work demands regarding emotional expression) does not significantly predict the burnout rate of employees. This shows that personal accomplishment is a separate dimension of burnout, and is preceded by predictors that are dissimilar from those that predict emotional exhaustion and depersonalization.

However, it was found that employee-focused emotional labour (regulation of feelings and emotional expression) could predict the burnout rate of employees. It was found that surface acting indeed contributed to a diminished sense of personal accomplishment, whereas deep acting contributed to a greater sense of personal efficacy at work.

Interestingly, the study also found that employees in “people work” did not report significantly higher levels of emotional exhaustion than did respondents employed in other occupations.


These results, though intuitive, could have potential implications on how an organization would prevent its employees from burning out.

Given that employees in “people work” (e.g. service sectors) were not found to experience emotional exhaustion/burnout any more than employees from other industries, have we been (wrongly) putting too much emphasis on how the nature of a job leads to the possibility of burnout through the experiencing of emotional labour? I.e. consistently assuming that employees in the service industries experience much more emotional labour and hence should also experience a higher rate of burnout

Have we been overlooking the fact that employees do have the autonomy and choice to regulate their feelings and emotional expression in such a way that their chances of burning out are minimized?

To conclude, more research on both emotional labour and burnout rate would definitely be required for a deeper understanding on this topic. When these findings are replicated and more or less robust, then sending employees to workshops/courses that aid them in their regulation of feelings and emotional expressions could possibly be more helpful to the employees to reduce burnout as compared to brainstorming on how the nature of a job could be altered to reduce employees’ emotional labour and hence burnout rate.






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