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Emotional Labor Is Frying Your Staff. You Can Fix It. 

Grin-and-bear-it workplace demands cause employee burnout. Your technology could help, but it might be hurting instead.

By Steven T. Hunt, Linda Grensing-Pophal

New servers hired at one large U.S. restaurant chain had to complete five days of training before being allowed on the floor. Much of this training was valuable, but some seemed excessive, such as having to memorize exactly how to place lemon slices depending on how many people at a table ordered iced tea. 


This level of micromanagement seems questionable in an industry that is already knocked off kilter by lockdowns and the aftermath and is now dealing with a revolving door of employees who often find the work overwhelming. Even before the pandemic, this industry was prone to overwhelm, and many new hires would leave during training, says Diane Gayeski, head of Gayeski Analytics and professor of strategic communication at Ithaca College’s Roy H. Park School of Communications. Gayeski, who worked with the company to make some training courses less memory-intensive and more intuitive, says those who did make it through often “approached customer tables in a bit of a panic, trying to recall abbreviations and other requirements instead of pleasantly and comfortably hosting their guests,” resulting in unhappy customers and servers who quickly burned out.


The need to act confident or happy while actually feeling confused or unprepared produces an effect that psychologists call “emotional labor.” Melissa Huey, assistant professor of behavioral sciences at New York Institute of Technology, says emotional labor is “the expectation of employees to manage their emotions and act in a certain way in accordance with what’s required of the job,” regardless of how they may feel internally. In other words, to “grin and bear it,” or “fake it ‘til you make it.”

When workers experience heavy emotional labor every day, it leads to lower performance and eventually to employee turnover.

Many service professions, such as healthcare, teaching, and call center work, are particularly subject to emotional labor. However, anyone expected to remain polite and well measured in response to a demanding manager, co-worker, or customer may experience it.


Some of this is expected; to a degree, keeping a stiff upper lip is just called “professionalism.” But when workers experience heavy emotional labor every day, it leads to lower performance and eventually to employee turnover. It’s one thing to fake a smile and hide your true feelings during a single encounter, but in some jobs, these encounters may happen dozens of times each day. Reducing emotional labor is largely a matter of job design, organizational culture, and managerial support, but the technology used at work also plays a big role.


Ready to increase productivity, lower turnover, and boost customer service? Take a close look at emotional labor's causes and effects, then follow experts’ advice to create a cross-departmental strategy to keep employees grinning with less emotional labor to bear.




The unholy trinity: stress, anxiety, and cognitive overload

Stress and anxiety are two key emotions behind emotional labor. To paraphrase the American Psychological Society, the distinction between the two is that stress is an in-the-moment response to external pressure, while anxiety is a generalized and persistent state of worry.


Stress and anxiety are not the only negative feelings associated with emotional labor, but they’re ringleaders for the pandemic-era zeitgeist. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2022 Report reveals that 60% of workers worldwide are “emotionally detached” and 19% are “miserable.” Even pre-pandemic, though, employee stress, burnout, and concerns about mental health were on the rise. In a 2018 Survey Monkey poll of 2,083 U.S. adults, 45% said that anxiety or depression negatively affected their office productivity “at least on occasion.”


While stress and anxiety are familiar coworkers, cognitive overload can be overlooked. But it contributes to both of those emotional responses, thus playing a key underlying role in causing emotional labor.


Huey describes cognitive load as “the amount of information that can be stored in your working memory at one time.” Cognitive overload occurs when employees are overwhelmed by the amount of information they’re attempting to store. Consider airline workers, who are famously required to “smile and wave” even while helping reroute and reticket multiple delayed and disgruntled fliers . Cognitive overload is common in the information-intensive medical industry as well, and Gayeski’s restaurant example illustrates how it plays out in entry-level roles and training situations in many industries.


This overload, and the resulting emotional labor, hurts both employees and the bottom line. Researchers at St. Catherine University state that “decades of research show that emotional labor exhausts us, impacting our health and job performance,” noting that women are most likely to suffer these effects.


In any job, overload and frustration are compounded when employees don’t have access to the information and tools they need to work effectively. Seeing the negative effects of too much – or too little – information clarifies why IT can help reduce emotional labor but often has the opposite effect.





Eliminating digital friction

“I’m just waiting for the system to bring up your record” is the modern contact center employee's familiar lament.


Slow response times increase customer agitation, which increases stress for the employee – and the emotional labor cycle begins again. But slow systems are just one way that technology contributes to the problem. The bigger picture is that IT systems often don't work the way employees want them to, and that's frustrating.


Gartner calls the result “digital friction.” The research firm’s 2020 Digital Friction Survey found that “only 58% of employees feel that information technology provided by corporate IT is designed [for] and aligned with how they work. And only one-third of employees say the technology they use is productive, empowering, and easy.”


Gayeski offers an illustration of how IT causes friction: if a student is missing classes or not responding to e-mails, a professor may file a report so that someone in administration can reach out to make sure the student is okay. “However,” she says, “they need the student’s ID number and e-mail – which requires signing in [to a system] and authenticating using their smartphone – then signing in once more to the alert system and rekeying that data.” Dealing with these process details and concern for the student while also fielding other demands of their work means the professor is working hard mentally and emotionally.


Automated connections between disjointed systems and integrated help systems linked to documentation and training can both help. For example, a new supervisor needing to update a job description could click on a help button to guide them through the process. And if the short help descriptions aren’t enough, they can click on a link to a video to step them through the process or a chat icon to connect them with an HR assistant. In this way, “technology can help to organize and save information, to free up working memory space for newer information that’s needed now, in the moment,” Huey says. 

Knowing how and when to interrupt people with notifications requires careful thought and a good understanding of workflows.

Tech-based reminders can also help, although there’s a balance to be struck, says Rachel Callan, an industrial/organizational psychologist at HR tech company Humu, which nudges employees toward their goals with personalized prompts or pop-ups.


“If technology takes you out of the flow of work, it increases the cognitive load, but if it meshes into the flow of work, it lessens the cognitive load,” she says. Think of employees facing a flood of messages from e-mail and calendar apps, Web site push notifications, videoconferencing software, and other platforms. Instead of being helpful, “it can overwhelm us with notifications, and if we’re not careful, we can end up sort of constantly being pinged and distracted.” Knowing how and when to interrupt people requires careful thought and a good understanding of workflows.


The Qualtrics 2022 Employee Experience report indicates that when employees do have access to productivity-enhancing technology, 91% of them are engaged in their work – compared to only 24% when they do not have such access. Neither HR nor IT can, or should, put technologies in place without first knowing where and to what extent employees are experiencing challenges related to cognitive load and emotional labor.




Five steps to reduce employee emotional labor  

1. Learn what employees need to do their jobs more effectively.


People are part of the equation. Two-way conversations – talking and listening – are important, says Alicia Grandey, an industrial/organizational psychologist and professor at Penn State University. “Managers and HR leaders should be listening to their employees to understand what they can do to co-create healthy workforce norms around recovery and well-being,” she says, “while also sharing how they sometimes struggle and need recovery too.”


This listening can occur in both formal ways (polls and surveys) and informal ways (one-on-ones, team meetings).


2. Make technology choices with employees’ workflow in mind.


IT systems must do what your organization needs, but they also need to help employees work the way they want to work. HR leaders, their IT colleagues, and finance professionals must work together to pick technologies that support the right workflows and work styles:

·        HR can provide input and direction based on its knowledge of employees’ needs and work settings.

·        IT can offer insights into available technology options and how they can interface with other systems to avoid the kind of rekeying or duplicate work that can take employees out of their workflow.

·        Finance can focus on maximizing the value while minimizing the costs of technology purchases. However, these calculations must include the full picture of how current systems may be diminishing employee performance.


While Callan recommends that organizations identify the go-to tools they will use and require employees to use them to minimize how much they need to learn, it’s also important to continually review their efficacy and the level of employee uptake.


A thorough understanding of where and how employees work, and how they work together, can help identify technology that makes those interactions as frictionless as possible. A common problem is when companies reward administrative functions for using technology and processes that support organizational goals but damage employee experience. For example, many companies require employees to use cumbersome tools to perform administrative tasks such as expense management, time tracking, procurement, or record keeping. Forcing employees to spend their time using inefficient, non-intuitive systems makes them feel more overwhelmed and less appreciated simultaneously.


The tipping point of cognitive overload is different for each individual, Callan notes. But she adds, “We know the telltale signs of cognitive overload are feelings of being overwhelmed, diminished work performance, and decreased sense of overall well-being.” If employees are feeling any of these signs, she says, reducing cognitive overload is a good place to start.


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3. Provide prompts and multiple ways to access resources.


Gayeski worked with a company that employed agents to answer phone calls from people with questions about their Medicare coverage. The agents went through six weeks of formal training that involved “literally thousands of pages from manuals of rules,” Gayeski says. The company would lose more than half of their new hires before training concluded. A redesigned training plan allowed new reps to first shadow veterans, then field parts of simple calls with a more experienced colleague also on the line. Only then did they go through a one-day, classroom-style training session. Once in their daily roles, these workers had access to online job aids to minimize the need to memorize information.


Access to that type of on-the-job reinforcement can help support learning while recognizing that employees aren’t likely to retain every bit of information provided during onboarding or training. Employees need refreshers and quick access to information about procedures or work processes they may not have used in some time or may simply have forgotten. Microlearning – offering short chunks of information with periodic reminders to maximize retention – is a valuable tactic in this approach.


Speech technology can play an important role in making reminders and information easy to access, allowing employees to use voice commands to ask questions, similar to the way they may interact with Siri or Alexa at home. AI, augmented reality (AR), and virtual reality can have useful applications as well. AI, for instance, makes it possible to insert learning into live work processes to prompt employees with content at the moment they need it while on the job, rather than in a classroom. AR can help show where parts fit or how repairs are performed.



4. Consider gamification and other ways to make work systems more enjoyable.


Companies are experimenting with gamification as an avenue to share wellness tips and bring employees together. Andrew Shatté, chief knowledge officer at meQuilibrium, a technology company focused on organizational and workforce resilience, points to examples of games designed to stage friendly competitions between coworkers. “Maybe they’re connecting their Fitbits and other fitness devices and encouraging each other or watching recordings,” he says. Badges or other awards can recognize contributions that individual employees are making to a team.


“Positivity is becoming extremely critical because we have negatively wired brains anyway,” Shatté says. “One of the things that we’re seeing leaders do to make people more resilient is injecting positivity.” That can be done through virtual recognition, for instance.


Gamification also offers immediate gratification through feedback in the form of points, prizes, and performance outcomes. It might be used to help employees role-play and engage with each other about effective ways to defuse tense situations with customers or to earn points for successfully engaging in online scenarios or challenges.


Some leaders expect the so-called metaverse to open up additional opportunities to bring employees together. Mark Purdy, an economics and technology advisor based in London, writes in Harvard Business Review that the metaverse is bringing “new levels of social connection, mobility, and collaboration to a world of virtual work.” He offers NextMeet, “an avatar-based immersive reality platform,” as an example; it allows employees to pop in and out of virtual offices and meeting rooms in real time, “walk” up to a virtual help desk, and otherwise connect with coworkers in ways that mimic real-world interactions.



5. Follow up with employees and offer social support.


Putting more supportive IT systems and applications in place will help. But addressing cognitive overload and emotional labor requires ongoing focus from corporate leaders, HR professionals, and managers.


Managers can build time into team calls to check in with their teams, both to keep themselves up to date and to review how well any newly improved or implemented technologies are working. Executives can encourage employees to take advantage of technology that promotes mindfulness or guides them through relaxation exercises.


For instance, Shatté says leaders concerned about the mental health and well-being of their employees may pause at the end of a video meeting to say, “Let’s all recount one good thing that happened to us this week.” It’s a simple thing, but he says “it can really turn a team around.” (Find more strategies in What Managers Can Do to Support Stressed Workers.)





Working together is working better

Ironically, perhaps, the persistent rise of emotional labor in stressful times can actually help organizations – those determined to address it – to work together more closely across traditional silos.


HR’s role in this collaboration is particularly vital in working with leaders, managers, and supervisors to find the tools and training to boost employee performance and engagement.


“This is a unique moment in time when HR can assume a much more pivotal role than it ever did, where it can be seen as something other than just a cost center,” Shatté says. For the first time in the last 30 years of his career, Shatté sees the goals of the chief HR and financial officers in alignment.


“CFOs are now acutely aware that unless they address the fundamental mental health, wellness, and happiness needs of employees, they’re going to have real problems. Because people are going to quit if they’re not happy.”


Meet the authors

Steven T. Hunt, Ph.D.
Chief Expert, SAP Innovation Office | SAP

Linda Grensing-Pophal
Independent Writer | Business and Technology

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