Emotional labour practice essay
The following post is an essay researched and written in anticipation of an exam question for the module Work & Well-Being in pursuit of the Organizational Psychology Master's qualification within the University of London's International Programmes (Birkbeck College). Excerpts may be be used with the citation:
Aylsworth, J. (2008). Emotional labor offers opportunity for practice-relevant research. Accessed: (Month year).
Exam essay question:
"Define the concept of 'emotional labour'* and outline any implications for well-being."
For Practice-Relevant Research
After defining key terms, we will weave theory and evidence into three issues: 1) the origins and development of emotional labor (EL), 2) occupational scope of study and operationalization, and 3) evidence. We will conclude that in spite of difficulties with the construct, it’s too soon to abandon EL as a theoretical basis for further refinement and study.
We define “well-being” as a broad construct that encompasses both physical and mental health but is best studied by examining specific aspects of well-being, for example: moods, emotions, meta-moods, physiological outcomes and psychological outcomes such as burnout – but only to the extent to which those aspects are well-operationalized (Briner, 2008). "Burnout" is defined using Maslach and Jackson’s (1981) three dimensions: 1) emotional exhaustion, 2) depersonalization (cynicism), and 3) reduced sense of personal accomplishment or efficacy.
#1 EL: Origins and development
With her qualitative study of flight attendants, Arlie Hochschild (1983) introduced the term “emotional labor” as requiring one "to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others." Hochschild never intended for this work to be empirical. Instead, she hoped it would serve as a basis for empirical work. She also contributed the following ideas:
Time limits prevent a thorough look at how EL has been further developed, but some of the most significant contributions have been:
#2 Occupational scope and operationalization
Occupational scope. Hochschild (1983) estimated that EL was required in nearly one-third of all jobs but half of the jobs held by women. Ashforth and Humphrey (1993) said that it’s difficult to imagine any job that would not require display rules to some degree, and Sass (2000) writes that a focus on service jobs is too narrow and constrains further research.
Indeed, a cursory literature review by this writer found more than 100 studies of EL representing at least 35 broad occupational categories. A sampling:
Operationalization. Even though more has been written about emotion work than any other aspect of work activity (Briner, 2008), EL has still not progressed beyond some fundamental operationalization problems. For example:
The most fundamental line of inquiry into EL seems to be a search for associations between surface acting and negative well-being outcomes versus deep acting and less-negative or positive outcomes. For example, Brotheridge and Lee (2003), in studying burnout, found that surface acting correlated positively with emotional exhaustion and depersonalization and negatively with professional accomplishment. Deep acting was not associated with emotional exhaustion and correlated positively with professional accomplishment.Though this study is not free of the well-recognized limitations of cross-sectional and self-report designs, it did acknowledge one variable that is often overlooked: individual differences.The authors used positive affect (PA) and negative affect (NA) as moderator variables, finding that individuals high in PA fared far better in avoiding negative outcomes associated with burnout, while a dramatic opposite was found for those with NA.
Perhaps the most careful study that we found was one that combined qualitative and quantitave methods to study the emotional demands on burnout (Briner & Poppleton, et al., 2008). The authors used quantitative diary studies, which can reveal within-persons differences – and interviews, which can reveal far more subtle insights than quantitative methods. Ultimately, Briner & Poppleton (2008) questioned the validity and reliability of the construct of burnout, and they were cautious in recommending the following intervention guidelines:
We have defined key terms and examined EL and its development, occupational scope and operationalization problems, and some of the best evidence. Acknowledging Hans Selye’s (1976) view that the only bad theory is a sterile one and even a wrong theory can be useful, we conclude that, in spite of its problems, EL has been quite useful in promoting further theory and research. It’s too early to abandon it – and we hope that it can be further unpacked to produce better evidence-based management recommendations and more practice-relevant research.
*"Labour" is the British spelling, which was used by the authors of the course material. However, the essay writer used the American spelling "labor" because she is from the U.S.
Exam performance: This answer was memorized and used under exam conditions, after which it was marked at the merit level – the lowest possible score designated as merit-level, but merit-level nonetheless.
Two comments: 1) The answer could have benefitted from a topic sentence, 2) In terms of time and literature review investment, this practice essay is an outstanding example of what NOT to do. This writer spent four months conducting an exhaustive literature review on emotional labor, hoping to use theory and evidence gleaned from it to earn a distinction-level mark should this question appear as an exam choice, which it did. In retrospect, higher marks might have been earned by limiting citations mostly to those covered during conferencing and perhaps citing only one or two references that would have indicated wider reading. At least for the purposes of developing a potential exam answer, the extensive literature review was a waste of time. 3) The quality of one's handwriting may be a significant intervening variable in an examination design of this nature.
(The answer was slightly edited prior to posting).