SARASOTA, Fla. (June 2, 2017) – Online news sites are noticing Dr. Melissa Sloan’s “emotional labor” research.
Quartz Media, qz.com, interviewed the USF Sarasota-Manatee sociologist for two articles this past April and then two online sites – the World Economic Forum and news aggregator RocketNews – picked up on the stories that same month.
The articles delve into emotional labor, the effort to control emotional expression to please others. In this case, the writers examined workers’ efforts to satisfy employers and customers.
In “The case for being grumpy at work,” writer Meredith Bennett-Smith noted that while employers might equate smiling employees with “a productive office,” research shows that forcing workers to act cheerful can spawn emotional exhaustion and other problems, and that women especially are expected to constantly display happiness.
Referencing Dr. Sloan, she wrote, “Sloan’s research shows that women who suppress their true feelings often end up feeling much less happy; this outcome is even more likely when those female employees work in the interactive service industry or are women of color.”
Quartz again cited Dr. Sloan’s work in “Politeness isn’t enough; we now demand friendliness. And it’s destroying authenticity,” by Olivia Goldhill.
Goldhill wrote that service workers – waiters, store clerks, customer service representatives and others – “carry out their job with a smile, masking their feelings to appear gregarious and charming to all customers.”
But this can have negative consequences.
Quoting Dr. Sloan, she said, “’The constant management of emotion can lead to emotional exhaustion and worker burnout,’ says Melissa Sloan, a sociology professor at University of South Florida who has studied the effects of emotional labor. ‘When you’re constantly changing the expression you give off to others, it can interfere with the signal function your emotion serves. It can be consequential to the self because workers are displaying a person to others that’s not necessarily congruent with who they think they are.’”
Dr. Sloan notes that while news sites are catching onto emotional labor and its damaging toll, the problem has existed for years and seems to be on the rise as customers’ expectations grow and more demands are heaped on workers.
“They really are becoming intertwined,” she said, adding that although “you can only do so much to please customers, we now expect workers to have a constant smile on their face and for that smile to be authentic.”
She notes that emotional labor is more common in lower-level service jobs where employees and the public interact, but the problem also occur in office settings and other places where employers have latched onto the notion that a happy workforce translates into greater productivity.
In this case, as in the service jobs, the demands of constantly managing emotion can lead to exhaustion and worker burnout, she said.
“It can be difficult to turn off,” said Dr. Sloan. Even at home “you can start to feel like a robot,” going through the motions and not showing your true identity. “This is especially harmful to workers when they’re in positions where they have little autonomy or control how they do their work.”
Her findings are more precisely detailed in two studies:
“The status of race in public sector work: Implications for emotion management and job satisfaction,” was co-authored by USFSM criminology professor Dr. James Unnever and published last year by the journal Sociological Focus.
Dr. Sloan’s other study, “Controlling Anger and Happiness at Work: An Examination of Gender Difference,” was published in 2012 by the journal Gender, Work & Organization.
“Emotional labor has been studied by scholars in a number of disciplines over the past 30 years,” she said. “It is nice to see a reference to academic research on this topic in the popular media; it calls attention to the salience of this issue for many workers.”