The Emotional Labour of Hospitality Employees

Emotional Labour

Explore the role of emotional labour in hospitality and how employment practices can support emotional labour through recruitment, remuneration, role descriptions and performance appraisals.

What is emotional labour?

Have you ever pasted on a smile at work even though you didn’t feel like smiling?

Have you ever had to hide your own feelings in order to meet a customer’s expectations? Have you ever felt emotionally drained at work?

If you said yes to any of these questions, then it’s likely you have experienced the effects of emotional labour. Emotional labour is when you are paid to manage your own feelings and that of others in order to deliver a particular experience for customers (Hochschild, 2012). 

The role of emotional labour in customer experience

In Hospitality, guests not only expect their experience to be positive and efficient but also to exceed expectations. The delivery of these experiences are commodified, crucial to deliver quality service and have significant economic value to any service business. 

While connecting emotionally with guest can be a point of genuine interest and reward for hospitality staff, it can also be a draining and challenging aspect of the work.

Emotional labour was first introduced to the world in Arlie Hochschild’s study, The Managed Heart (2012) focused on the experiences of airline hosts. It explored how these employees relied on “surface acting,” such as pasting on a smile when dealing with a demanding customer and “deep acting”, like drawing on personal experience to empathise with a grieving widow during a service interaction. Hochschild’s research has truly changed the way we understand how employees utilise their emotions and how these emotions are “put to work”.

Other researchers have looked at challenges to businesses on how to assess, acknowledge and appreciate emotional labour. They have explored the role emotional labour plays in service delivery and how are employment practices can support emotional labour through recruitment, remuneration, role descriptions and performance appraisals. 

There are significant costs of emotional labour to the individual. Employees might experience emotional dissonance when they “fake” their feelings because they no longer have a sense of what their real feelings are, or in the long term, they might even loose connection with their authentic self. The costs of individual burnout to the organisation are also extensive because this has impact on collective morale, job satisfaction, and voluntary turnover. 

Steps to reduce the impact of emotional labour

The good news is that there are small, simple steps staff and organisations can take to manage emotional labour. 

My research revealed that innovative organisations “job shared” customer contact work with desk or logistics work to provide employees an opportunity to emotionally process and refresh during their shift. Innovations in cross-training and ensuring job roles present a variety of customer facing and behind-the-scenes work presents the novelty, challenge, and personal connection that employees find intrinsically motivating and rewarding while balance with rest periods from costumer facing work.

Other strategies to reduce the impact of emotional labour included businesses having a “care response” plan for when staff deal with difficult, intense or crisis situations. For example, when an employee responds to an obstinate guest, interpersonal conflict, or provides first aid for an injury, their physical and mental wellbeing should be prioritised. Hotels can plan ahead for the care of their employees by including appropriate debriefing and support, time for rest or reprieve from customer contact roles and support in processing emotions (shock, denial, depression) common after such experiences. 

The ongoing training of people skills is also a key strategy to help build resilience for emotional labour, and reduce its toll on individuals. In particular, communication, judgement and collaboration skills help to mitigate the burden of emotional labour by reducing misunderstandings, negotiating performance expectations and conjointly delivering positive outcomes for and with guests, peers, and managers. While the value and benefits of emotional intelligence is widely understood, the additional value of social intelligence in highly people-centric work within the hospitality industry is equally important. 

Sometimes just having a bit of fun or a laugh with your friends at work can be enough to shake off the feelings of a challenging customer encounter! In fact, having supportive, competent and positive colleagues can make a significant difference to the way employees experience and manage the demands of emotional labour.  Emotions are contagious so we are each tasked to contribute, through organisational citizenship, to a positive, albeit genuine, workplace. In this way, we can help shift how our colleagues perceive challenges within and outside of work (and vice versa)!

Mandi Baker is a Lecturer and Research Fellow at the Blue Mountain International Hotel Management School at Torrens University Australia. Her research explores the emotional demands (emotion work), people skills (Affective Abilities) and organisational contexts (power-relations) of people-centric service work. If you want to learn more, she has recently published a book called Becoming and Being a Camp Counsellor: Discourse, Power Relations and Emotions.

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