Emotional Labour of Service: When the Show Must Go On

Interested in Becoming a Member?

An SIM Membership like no other, provides you with an abundance of tools, resources and opportunities to help you achieve your professional and personal success at every step of the way! Be part of our learning community of more than 34,000 corporate and individual members.

For more information about membership, please click here »

Member Login

If u are a subscriber, please use ur subscriber login.
If you are a SIM Member, please use your SIM Membership login.

Forgot your password?

Member Login

Forgot your password?
login  Cancel

Sign Up

If you wish to sign up for a SIM Membership, please click here


If you wish to subscribe to Today's Manager, please click here

If you wish to subscribe to Singapore Management Review, please click here

Website maintenance notice: Website will not be accessible from 27 June (11 pm) to 28 June (9 am) due to scheduled maintenance. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.

Home > Articles > Emotional Labour of Service: When the Show Must Go On

 Emotional Labour of Service: When the Show Must Go On

Seow Bee Leng | Today's Manager
March 1, 2019
Service employees must project happiness and politeness to customers even if they feel upset inside. Service requires plenty of heart-work; and being sincere and authentic is the way to go.

Immersion and Intensity in the Service Role
The service employee’s experience consists of his/ her cognitive, emotional, and behavioural responses when performing his/her service role at work. This experience by the service employee conveys what occurs in the service role i.e. time spent in the service place immersed in the sights, sounds, and other environmental factors that surrounds him/her (“immersion”) and demands of the service role to meet or exceed customers’ needs and expectations (“intensity”). The intensity in the service role is often described as the amount of emotional labour required for the planning, organising, and control needed to express the publicly observable and desired emotions compared to what the service employee really feels in the customer experience. Service staff are expected to have a cheerful disposition, be friendly, compassionate, and self-effacing. They are required to manage their personal emotions to produce the desired customer response for service excellence.

Emotional Labour of Service
Emotions play an important part in how service employees function in their customer experiences. The display rules are similar to a script, describing what response the service staff should express and suppress while performing his/her service task. This means that he/she may evoke or suppress certain emotions in order to conform to social norms. There are two dimensions of emotional labour: emotive effort and emotive dissonance. They reflect how challenging it can be for an employee to maintain a helpful and caring attitude when inside, he/ she may be dealing with negative personal or work issues. Have you ever in your service role had to deal with a rude and unreasonable person? Were you able to manage your emotions and still be at your professional best?

Alice works as a customer service agent. She has to serve customers from all walks of life, handling their diverse requests from the routine to the demands of exceptional waivers to the stipulated policies, and terms and conditions. No matter what demands and emotions Alice has to handle, she has to always project “service with a smile”. Alice needs to have a high level of self-awareness and management to be able to handle her emotions in her service role, and this is called emotional labour. Alice has to project happiness and politeness to the customers even if she feels upset and disillusioned inside. The show must go on! She has to conceal her true emotions and continue to be pleasant when receiving critical remarks from demanding customers. It can be draining.

Surface and Deep Acting
There are two types of emotional labour, and they are called deep acting and surface acting. Deep acting is about the service employee trying to feel a specific emotion that he/she is thinking about in his/her mind. For example, Alice will think about a time when she was appreciated by friendly customers who took the time to write her letters of commendation while serving. This would put Alice in a positive mood prompting her to respond to customers’ concerns with joy and politeness. Surface acting is when the service employee has to fake emotion to meet the required social or work rules. For example, Alice is extremely upset with an aggravated customer who keeps shouting at her and refuses to listen to her. Her supervisor and colleagues have no idea that Alice is in personal turmoil. Alice has intentionally portrayed emotions that she is not currently feeling by faking to exude positivity and providing friendly service to her customers. Engagement in surface acting can happen when one needs to hide negative emotions, such as masking the dislike of a customer’s suggestion. Surface acting has been most extensively studied in service workers, who need to put on a pleasant smile for their working hours even when engaging unpleasant customers. It can cause suffers to experience detachment from their own emotions. They may suffer emotional exhaustion and reduced job satisfaction.

Managing Emotional Labour the Authentic Way
Emotional labour affects how the service employee performs at work. Relentless surface acting is physically and emotionally exhausting because it requires a constant application of effort to act. Based on the role conflict theory, it is assumed that people who display “fake” emotion (surface acting) will have experienced a higher level of emotional exhaustion and lower level of job satisfaction. Staff in jobs that contain high levels of emotional labour tend to have higher levels of absenteeism, turnover, and less engagement. Managers can identify service professionals who are having emotional labour and provide relevant and practical training to help them deal with their concerns, be energised, and avoid job burnout. And in the process discover ways to maintain authentic and positive relations with others without having to constantly monitor their expressed emotions. Some research points to the approach of finding ways to feel the emotion yourself, eliciting the authentic emotions, and then portraying those with a conscious choice. In this emotionally intelligent (EQ) way, one will not need to pay the same energy toll as with surface acting. Improving is an effective way to reduce the burden of emotional labour.

Another deep connecting way to know and manage oneself will be through the discovery of his self-efficacy. Self-efficacy refers to the service employee’s belief in his/her capability to organise and execute a course of action needed to meet the demands of service tasks. It refers to evaluations that an employee makes concerning his/her ability to do what is needed to successfully conduct his/her service job. Service professionals who have high levels of self-efficacy believe they have the potential for mastering job-related stressors more effectively. Most research studies have emphasised that the individual perceptions of one’s self-efficacy can buffer against the tension of emotional labour.

In the bigger picture, connecting the significance at work to a larger purpose is another sweet spot to counter emotional labour. Finding significance at service work is not about taking some lofty action in the future; but about understanding why we might do a particular task, then putting that “why” into action today. It can be a small action of greetings done well, and ensuring that these small moments when added together, equals what we mean to create. Significance is about putting it into action within us. Knowing why you are doing what you are doing, and what you want to accomplish will help you make choices and decisions for the shift.

Service requires plenty of heart-work, and being sincere and authentic is the way to go!


Dr Seow Bee Leng has extensive service excellence training experience with corporations (private and public sectors), academic institutions, and non-profit organisations. Her interests lie in helping service employees enjoy service delivery, value-add, and create meaningful connections with their clients. She is the author of S.E.R.V.E.TM: Empower Yourself, Empower Others and Make a Difference.

Copyright © 2019 Singapore Institute of Management

Article Found In

Today's Manager Issue 1, 2019

View Issue

Browse Articles

By Topic
By Industry
By Geography