Emotional Labor: The True Cost of Service with a Smile

Topic(s): personality, selection, stress
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (July, 2013)
Article: Affect Spin and the Emotion Regulation Process at Work
Authors: D.J. Beal, J.P. Trougakos, H.M. Weiss, R.S. Dalal
Reviewed by: Ben Sher

Talk about demanding work! In addition to their typical job duties, like waiting on tables, making sales, or assisting customers, customer service professionals must also perform emotional labor. When employees smile cheerfully at the end of a grueling shift, they are performing something called surface acting, which is a type of emotional labor. Research has shown that emotional labor can lead to psychological strain and fatigue. The current study (Beal, Trougakos, Weiss, & Dalal, 2013) has made advancements in this area of research by scrutinizing a new variable, called “affect spin”.

The authors define “affect spin” as the extent to which people experience a variety of different emotions throughout the day. For example, some people might fluctuate between two or three emotional states throughout the day, while others fluctuate between six or seven. Why does this matter? The authors conducted a study of restaurant servers in multiple restaurants, and found that levels of “affect spin” influence the degree to which the servers experienced psychological strain and other negative outcomes due to the emotional labor they performed.

When individuals experience many different emotions during the day (high “affect spin”), they also tend to react more strongly to emotionally charged events. Indeed, the study found that these servers experienced more psychological strain as a result of their surface acting. Additionally, people who experience many different emotions may find it harder to predict how they will feel at any given time. This unpredictability makes them exert more effort in forcing themselves to display the “right” emotions on the job. The study also found that people high on “affect spin” experienced more fatigue as a result of their emotional labor.
However, the authors also found that people with high levels of “affect spin” may also have the ability to experience higher levels of psychological strain without it leading to fatigue. This is because they may have more experience with feeling “stressed out”, and therefore handle it better. In other words, being high on “affect spin” has its advantages in addition to its disadvantages.

So yes, servers and other customer service professionals are at risk for psychological strain and fatigue due to the emotional labor required of them. However, thanks to this study, we better understand that not all individuals respond to those job demands in the same way, and why. Although this sheds light on who may be best cut out to do customer service work, as always (say this with a smile), more work is necessary.