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Signs of Emotional Labor from Work

Written by Stephanie Nera, RPh, PharmD · Pharmacology

Updated Feb 23, 2021

Signs of Emotional Labor from Work

“The customer is always right’ and “service with a smile’ are just a couple of mottos that many companies believe in. While it is beneficial for consumers, this often places an emotional burden on workers. Over time, the emotional load may be overwhelming and can lead to poor mental health. Learn more about emotional labor and the signs of emotional labor here.

What is emotional labor?

In general, labor is any sort of work or effort that is required to do a certain task. Traditionally, labor referred to only physical labor such as working on a farm or factory. However, the modern definition of labor includes physical, mental, and emotional labor.

Just as physical labor can be taxing on the body, emotional labor can be draining. When workers are expected to check their emotions at the door, they are essentially asked to ignore any personal or non-work-related problems.

Good Stress vs. Bad Stress: What’s The Difference?

There are two types of emotional labor, namely surface acting and deep acting. Surface acting is when a person is required to put on a happy face even when faced with a stressful situation, such as an irate customer. Deep acting is said to be, “real feelings that have been self-introduced’ or essentially, “fake it until you make it.’

However, this is not possible all the time. It goes without saying that suppressing emotions for too long can negatively affect mental health.

Workers that often experience emotional labor

  • Waiters and waitresses
  • Food services workers
  • Custodians and sanitation workers
  • Medical frontliners
  • Office secretaries
  • Call center agents
  • Signs of emotional labor

    #1: Fatigue or burnout

    The number one sign of any type of labor would be fatigue. Just like physical labor, emotional labor can take its toll on the body and mind. While most days may be good, keeping a smiling face despite being yelled at or insulted by a customer is draining. While it may be part of the job, it does not dismiss the negative effects.

    Good managers know when to identify and address problems in the workplace, however, they can’t control everything. If you are feeling fatigued or burned out from keeping a brave face at work for too long, don’t be afraid to bring it up to your superior. Use your breaks and days off away from work-related issues as much as possible to avoid overwhelming yourself.

    #2: Not enjoying your job

    There may be a point that emotional labor can get too heavy and you end up hating your job. If you find it harder to wake up in the morning and commute to work despite the paycheck and benefits, it may be due to excessive emotional labor or other factors. Surface acting and deep acting can only take you so far.

    Talking to your superior or HR may be a way to improve your work environment. However, depending on the nature of the work itself, it may be time to switch careers or workplaces.

    #3: Compartmentalizing

    Compartmentalization is a defense mechanism used when people are confronted with conflicting emotions or thoughts. It can be a helpful tool to get through work and life experiences. However, it is impossible to completely separate our real self from our professional selves all the time.

    People who compartmentalize too long at work may feel conflicted or confused as to what their actual beliefs and feelings are. For example, medical workers are often expected to put aside their religious beliefs. But what happens when your workplace is involved with something you don’t believe in, such as blood transfusion or abortion?

    In this scenario, you may be able to justify that you are not the one performing the act so it is acceptable. However, from time to time you may feel hypocritical for it. You may experience an identity or cognitive dissonance.

    #4: Unloading your feelings at home

    While emotional labor dictates that workers should check their emotions at the door, the opposite is not true. When we are expected to hold back our emotions in the workplace, often the only place we can release it is at home. Unloading after a hard day at work can be relieving, however, this can place a strain on your family who may have emotional build up of their own.

    Your home and family should be a sanctuary, not an emotional dump site.

    signs of emotional labor

    #5: Strained personal relationships

    In relation to the previous number, if emotional labor is harming your work and personal life, it is a bad sign. If you consistently find yourself in an uphill battle it may be time for a change. Even the most supportive partner or friend can grow tired of hearing about work problems. They may start to avoid discussing topics about work or even avoid spending time with you because of it.

    If you find yourself constantly complaining about work to others, you need to address it at the source.

    Key takeaways

    In summary, emotional labor is a common concern for many customer-oriented workers and frontliners. The burden can make working less enjoyable and even disrupt your home life. While emotional labor is not entirely avoidable, there are ways to minimize it and cope.

    Talking to your superior or HR about unhealthy work environments is one way to address issues. The signs of emotional labor may overlap with other mental health issues. Consult with a therapist if you feel that you are unable to find healthy ways to manage and cope with your emotions.


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Written by

    Stephanie Nera, RPh, PharmD


    Updated Feb 23, 2021

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