The Federal Aviation Administration has tallied more than 1,700 incidents of unruly passengers so far this year. Call-center employees are fielding more angry calls than ever before. In a July 2020 report from the Institute for Customer Service, more than half of customer-service workers said they had experienced abuse from customers since the pandemic began. In another survey focused on restaurant workers, that number was 62%.

Over the past few years, the customer-is-always-right mindset has buckled and broken under the weight of unprecedented aggression. On flights, in grocery aisles, in retail stores and restaurants, employees have found themselves trying to defuse situations ranging from harassment to outright assault amid a spike in violence against service workers.

In any workplace context, absorbing any amount of hostility is taxing at best, and in some cases downright frightening. But when a key component of the role is to appear friendly and accommodating, as is the case in so many customer-facing settings, navigating that antagonism can be especially fraught. In this way, the extremes of the pandemic-era customer have thrown into stark relief one of the most challenging components of service roles: the accompanying emotional labor.

In recent years, the phrase, coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1983, has become something of a buzzword, often used to describe the invisible domestic work disproportionately saddled by women. But in its original iteration, emotional labor refers to the act of “managing your emotional expressions when interacting with other people to perform your work,” explains industrial-organizational psychologist Alicia Grandey, a professor at Penn State who runs the university’s Workplace Emotional Labor and Diversity Lab.

In other words, it’s regulating the way you seem to feel on the outside, independently of how you actually feel, to conform to the demands of the job—an ongoing task that all too often goes unrecognized even as it drains employees’ psychological resources. “The easiest and most straightforward way to understand it is the service-with-a-smile requirement in service work and frontline service work,” Grandey says.

But less obviously, emotional labor is ubiquitous in any role that involves some element of interpersonal interaction. “The way we use that term has changed,” she adds. “We’ve always managed our emotions to get along with our coworkers and our supervisors, but now we’re calling it emotional labor.” And understanding how it works—what it is, what makes it easier, how it looks different in the Covid era—can help managers and employees alike learn to build workplaces that can absorb its demands.

For more insights, we spoke recently with Grandey. Here are excerpts from our discussion, edited lightly for length and clarity:

What does emotional labor actually look like in practice?

If emotional labor is about the expressions and how we interact with other people, it's not just about me controlling my emotions internally for myself. It’s about acting, how we’re performing with another person. Surface acting is putting it all on the surface. You paste on a smile. Think about flight attendants as they're saying goodbye repeatedly to the entire hundred people on the plane. It can also be covering up, like being frustrated with the other person in such a way that they can’t tell. Or amplifying: ‘I’m feeling fine, but I’m trying to make it look a bit more high-intensity.’

Surface acting is something we can do to protect our sense of self. It's a way of saying, ‘I'm only going to give this much to my customer or my team members.’ Deep acting does require a little bit more motivation: ‘I'm going to give more of what's inside in order to appear the way I'm expected to.’ The problem is that workplaces have started demanding authentic interactions.  

Deep acting is doing more cognitive-behavioral activities to try and really feel it, like psyching myself up before I get out on the work floor. Or reminding myself, ‘That person’s probably upset because they’re having a hard day.’ Basically doing cognitive gymnastics to make yourself actually feel what you’re expected to show.

I have research on this that we're writing up, on espousing one's organization as being authentic versus being positive. Both of them sound like good things, right? But the downside of authentic is that there might be more conflicts, because you're sharing more of yourself. And the downside of positive is that you're having to surface act. So they both have costs that kind of make them equivalent in some ways. It depends what you expect from your workplace.

Has the pandemic changed how we think about either surface acting or deep acting?

Emotional labor has changed, because now we're doing more computer-mediated interaction. I don't have to use my entire body to show friendliness. If I'm a call-center employee, then it's just vocal. So the way that we are using computer-mediated or Zoom calls as part of our service interactions might change how we do emotional labor. The same for masking during the pandemic.

What role has mask-wearing played?

We have some research on this that we still haven't published. This was a year into the pandemic, as things started opening up before the delta variant. You would think that masking would reduce the need for emotional expression, because it’s covering up the face, but what we found is that that wasn’t the case at all. Most service workers said they had to put in more effort because they didn’t have the smile, which is an easy signal of friendliness, so they had to use all sorts of other cues. They had to use their eyes more, their eyebrows, their vocal tone, their full body. They lost a simpler way to show friendliness and approachability.

But what it seemed to do was change the dynamic with the customer. Customers saw the person as just as friendly, even covering up the smile, but they felt less powerful in the interaction. Normally there's a power differential right between the customer and the employee, and the smile is one way of showing that difference: ‘I’m there to please you, I'll do what you want.’ And we found that when the mask is on, that removes that signal of deference. I could still be using a friendly vocal tone and showing you with my body language that I'm here to help, but without that smile, customers felt a little more equal.

And we actually found that that improved their interactions. They were less likely to sexually harass them or treat them in those kinds of ways. I wrote a paper a while back on the dark side of emotional labor, and kind of tongue in cheek said, ‘What if we didn't have to require smiles?’ And the masking gave us a chance to see what that would do. It didn't really seem to suddenly change everything in terms of the service interactions being just fine. If anything, it helped reduce the sense that customers could take advantage of the employee.

Frontline service employees are more likely to continue to wear the mask than customers are. That makes sense, because they are at risk. They are constantly interacting. The customer can come in and out and feel safe as they're leaving quickly, but not the service provider. So I could see things shifting where managers are going to have to have negotiations with their employees about whether that's okay, especially if customers see it as a problem. Are they going to require that they don't wear a mask, or are they going to let it be the employee's choice?

Especially for employees whose role requires a certain baseline amount of emotional labor, what can workplaces do to make sure that it isn't a driver of burnout or otherwise too detrimental to well-being?

Some amount of autonomy can be given to employees to determine not just how to do the emotional labor, but also when. If I’m required to do service with a smile no matter what that means—to continue to smile at customers that are harassing me, rude to me, or using their power as customers in a way that’s inappropriate—that autonomy is gone.

There’s  also some evidence showing that when managers are supportive, meaning that they show empathy and they’re compassionate, it does help employees feel more genuinely positive as well as supported in those interactions. If my manager has my back, I can be genuinely positive. I don’t have to do as much work creating those emotions, internally or externally, and genuine expressions aren’t as costly.

And then compassion can also help me feel better after a difficult customer interaction, which is going to happen. I have a paper called ‘The Customer's Not Always Right.’ Customers can be abusive. There's no reason to value customers more than employees, and I think this past two years has shown that clearly. The turnover that’s happened, whether it's in office work or it's in service work, puts more pressure on the employees that remain and makes them overwork, and then they quit. You can't value the customer at that cost.

You’ve studied the relationship between emotional labor and diversity, equity, and inclusion. What can be done to mitigate inequities in who has to perform more emotional labor?

Managers need to recognize that when groups of people don't do emotional labor, there are differential costs. Everyone liked a smiling service worker, whether they were Black or white male or female. But when people are not smiling, that's where we see the stereotypes coming. So a Black employee not smiling might be assumed to be hostile or they're angry.

Whereas with a white employee, people are more generous with their attribution: ‘Oh, maybe they're just busy.’ It’s true of the lack of smiling for women versus men as well. More labor has to be done in order to seem positive, which means white men can do less emotional labor with less cost. So being aware of those stereotypes coming from customers, and realizing that some groups may be more penalized when they are not able to do more labor, can help with understanding the differential ratings that are seen from customers.

Are there any best practices for equipping workers to manage their emotional labor throughout the workday?

There's been some work on mindfulness training, because mindfulness is about accepting that sometimes things feel bad, and instead of suppressing them, being more accepting of them and being able to move on without feeling that need to keep faking it. So you can actually move on faster.

But typically in front-line service work, there isn't a lot of training. I have a 17-year-old daughter who's done like five different service roles and has almost never gotten training. She watches videos on safety protocol and that's about it. Valuing employees can mean giving training that says, ‘Here are some ways to handle a difficult customer. Here’s how to de-escalate conflict. Here’s when it’s okay to say no, that’s not appropriate, and step away.’  

And paying them a reasonable wage. When employees feel that their emotional labor is financially compensated, it makes that surface acting not as stressful. If I'm doing physical labor, I should get paid. If I am doing cognitive labor, I should get paid. But we tend to treat emotional labor as, ‘Oh, it's easy. It's fun. You should do it naturally.’ It doesn't get the wages it deserves. There are still states where restaurant workers make $2 and everything else is tips. That means they're completely dependent on the customer, which puts them at risk for mistreatment and having to fake it no matter what. So that is something that can definitely make a difference: Pay them what they’re worth. If service work is important, if satisfied customers are important, pay them a reasonable wage.