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  • Teresa McKee

Managing Emotional Labor

Great leadership is not easy, especially if you’re doing it well. But it may feel harder now than it’s been in the recent past, and it requires a great amount of emotional labor, due to stressful external factors like pandemic fall-out, inflation, political strife, mental health issues, the competition for talent and the never-ending on-site/hybrid/remote debate. The impact of the times we’re experiencing is significant. Leadership requires more skills, expertise, diplomacy, subtlety, judgment and creativity today than ever before.

According to Dr. Tracy Bower, emotional labor is the work people do to manage feelings and regulate how they are perceived by others, so interactions can be successful. It’s also the effort to maintain well-being and be optimistic in the face of constant stress and high expectations. It’s the effort to remain self-aware, particularly about our emotions, and the moment-by-moment decision about how to express them, and that’s becoming a crucial leadership competency in the future of work.

There are two types of emotional labor approaches: surface acting and deep acting.

Surface acting involves publicly showing certain emotions while hiding other emotions, according to the expectations of a work role. In surface acting, “people are showing, or trying to show, a different emotion than the ones that they are truly experiencing,” explains psychologist Melanie Badali. An example of surface acting could be when a manager is smiling as they listen to a staff member’s story but is actually quite upset with a decision their organization just made. The real emotion does not match the emotion exhibited.

In deep acting, people try to regulate their feelings, not just the expression of them, by trying to change their thought patterns. Workers in deep acting will try to align their true emotions with the emotions expected of them on the job. An example of deep acting could be the same manager shifting her emotions from anger by focusing on her role of providing mentorship to the staff member that she feels is important and beneficial. According to Dr. Badali, “Deep acting appears to have a positive effect on performance without having the same well-being negative consequences as surface acting.”

Great leadership is of course easier when everything’s going smoothly, but we’re operating through the combination of so many anxiety-invoking scenarios, it makes it much tougher. Leadership always includes setting a course for the future, but this is not so easy when we’re dealing with so much uncertainty about what’s ahead. Leadership is also always about motivating staff, but with so many personal staff issues occurring that we may not even be aware of, it’s pretty daunting to find a way to keep everyone motivated and on the same page.

Emotional labor is magnified with increased pressure and higher stakes. Work had already become more complex over the past couple of years due to the pandemic and change is occurring faster than ever before, but that’s unfortunately not the end of the challenges we face.

The external environment has become extremely divisive, pressuring leaders to be cautious about expressing their opinions or careful about when they do so. Keeping harmony among staff may feel exhausting when perspectives are widely divided and could add to the emotional labor burden as you attempt to appear neutral.

Depression, anxiety and cognition challenges are on the rise due to the constant stress people are experiencing. Of course, you may be experiencing these as well, but you’re also facing higher expectations to support your staff’s emotional, physical and cognitive well-being despite your own challenges.

You also now have the task of trying to guess when the right time is to bring employees back into the office, and/or how to create a hybrid framework that meets the needs of clients, employees and other stakeholders. And thanks to the great resignation, which is still impacting industries across the nation, you’re under a lot of pressure to manage that transition skillfully. A recent study by showed a third of workers regularly think about quitting their jobs, and research by Microsoft found 52% are likely to change employers this year.

There are also new budgetary complications regarding staff. For example, with a nursing shortage estimated to last 5 years in California with a 13.6% gap, how can you compete with employers offering whopping signing bonuses and higher wages? Circling back around to the hybrid/remote issue, what happens if staff leave because you can’t meet their expectations? The expense is obviously substantial and the emotional labor involved in negotiations may be severe.

All of this exposes leaders to the real possibility that with all of this intensity and under these challenging conditions, we may feel greater concerns for others and worry about our own capacity to meet the new pressure we’re under. The good news is, we can cope by managing our emotional labor so we can be our best and deliver our best.

Recognizing and validating your own situation can help you better manage emotional labor. It’s logical that leaders may be feeling more stress and it’s understandable that you may be feeling greater intensity at work. Simply understanding these circumstances and allowing yourself to accept that you’re not perfect and that it’s normal to feel stressed in this situation can actually reduce distress. Give yourself some space and recognize that you’re going through a lot.

Remember to focus on progress over perfection. Remember that you’re doing the best you can, even when it’s not up to yours or someone else’s expectations. Remove the pressure to perform at an ideal level and commit to incremental improvement if you’re feeling overwhelmed and struggling with the emotional labor side of your role.

Too often, leaders take on additional work in order to shield their staff members or may put off a vacation or work during a vacation, in order to reduce the demands on their team. But managing boundaries can help you maintain your emotional health. By working hard but not sacrificing your own wellbeing, leaders model work-life balance more effectivity, and therefore influence their team members in positive ways as well.

Emotional labor can be considered an invisible task, but it’s vital that you do not underestimate its importance and potential impact on your well-being. Stay attuned to how you’re feeling and take action when you feel frustration building up, like taking a brisk walk, meditating or closing your door and simply breathing for a few minutes. Keep in mind that when you’re hungry, tired or feeling anxious, emotional labor becomes much more difficult, so again, self-awareness and self-care are critical. Remember to give yourself credit for your ability to manage this difficult skill as it’s not easy.

If you reach a point that you’re struggling with emotional labor, talk to someone. Whether a professional or a friend, it can alleviate pressure to share how you’re feeling. Emotional labor is effortful and fatiguing when performed repeatedly throughout the day and it can lead to unhelpful consequences, from performance errors to job burnout, especially when surface acting is involved resulting in feelings of inauthenticity. Studies show that the anxiety and fatigue from surface acting can spill over to impact other domains of life in the form of reduced engagement at home and insomnia. It can also lead to self-medicating with alcohol as you become tired of self-regulating.

Mindfulness can strengthen your ability with deep acting while modifying stress, so if you’re not already practicing, consider taking some form of mindfulness training, like a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Course. Increasing awareness of your emotions and motivations, as well as how to connect them to the behavior you need to demonstrate at work is the heart of deep acting and since mindfulness helps to build emotional regulation skills, it relieves some of the pressure of emotional labor.

The bottom line is that emotional labor is real part of most leaders’ job, but you also need to treat your feelings like a job. Protect your ability to show up for yourself and others each day by taking care of yourself.


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