Reduce stress by using emotional labor to your advantage

Do you ever feel stressed out at work because you have to “fake” how you really feel? Perhaps you pretend to like your boss even when he/she’s a jerk, or you fake your enthusiasm for a project you find totally boring. Well, today we will take a look at how faking emotions influences our performance at work, and more specifically how we can use emotional labor techniques to make our jobs less stressful.

Put scientifically, emotional labor is the management of your feelings and emotions, in order to fulfill the emotional requirements of your job. What this means is that you as a worker are expected to regulate your emotions, or in other words act a certain way when you interact with your customers, clients, co-workers, or superiors. Think for instance about “the customer is always right”, service with a smile, or having to project enthusiasm when you are worried or exhausted.

As you might expect, or have experienced yourself, this emotional labor comes at a price. Having to show emotions that you don’t actually feel creates stress and leads to lower levels of well-being.

Fortunately for us, there are some guidelines we can follow that help us mitigate this stress, and might even turn this taxing act into something positive. Specifically, we’ll cover:

  • Three forms of acting that can guide our faking behavior
  • How to reduce the stress of emotional labor by aligning your identity with your role
  • How deliberate faking can sometimes help you in your job

As always, our team of experts in neuroscience and psychology have gone through over 40 scientific studies related to the emotions in the workplace, emotional labor and emotional regulation strategies, in order to provide you with this practical, science-based guide on how to  reduce stress by using emotional labor to your advantage.

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Why do we experience negative effects from having to fake emotions?

Before we take a look at reducing stress, it is first good to know more about why we experience negative effects from having to show emotions that we are not actually feeling. For this we need to take a closer look to the concept of emotional dissonance.

Emotional dissonance is the conflict that arises when your actual emotions do not match the emotions you express to conform with display rules.

This influences our well-being because we create a sense of inauthenticity when we have to display emotions we don’t feel, as faking emotions can feel like lying. Having to fake emotions frequently may even lead to feelings of depersonalization and alienation from one’s job.

In contrast to genuinely expressing your emotions, faking emotions is also more cognitively taxing, because faking means that you have to actively check if your words, facial expressions, and vocal tones match the emotions that you have to portray.

Just think about getting a birthday present that you don’t really like. As you don’t want to hurt the gift giver’s feelings, you might want to fake being happy. But what does being happy really mean? If we want to come over as genuine as possible, we will have to ask ourselves:

  • How happy should I be receiving this particular gift?
  • How much do I have to adjust my current emotion in order to match the emotion I want to convey?

For all these things you have to actively monitor yourself to check how well your expression matches the target emotion.

  • Is my voice sounding happy, or is my disappointment noticeable?
  • Am I looking happy, or is my disappointment showing through?
  • Am I doing a convincing job, or am I overdoing it?

All these steps require cognitive resources, and, as you might imagine, having to do this for a long time will leave you exhausted.

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Emotional labor acting: Deeper acting helps reduce the stress of faking emotions

As we previously noted, emotional labor is the act of displaying emotions that are required as part of your job duties.


Three levels of emotional labor acting. 

There are three main ways to approach emotional labor based on your level of immersion in the act you are performing: surface acting, deep acting, and expressing naturally felt emotions.

Surface acting. At the lowest level of immersion exists surface acting. As the name might give away, surface acting is when you only portray the required emotion on a surface level, and not actually try to feel the emotion that you want/need to portray. For example, an employee who is feeling irritated may nevertheless smile at his boss because he knows his boss likes positive attitudes and yearly reviews are coming up.

As surface acting requires you to actively check your emotional language when you are interacting with others, it will also cause the most negative effects.

Deep acting. At the second level of immersion we find deep acting. Deep acting is when you try to summon the emotion that you want to portray, by actively engaging in thoughts and activities that help foster the emotion. We can do this by exhorting feelings and trained imagination.

For instance, imagine you are a sales associate for a clothing brand, but find yourself having to fake enthusiasm for your sales pitch. You might engage in deep acting by

  • listening to pleasant or energizing music as you drive to work,
  • chatting amiably with your coworkers,
  • getting excited about fashion trends and the latest line of clothing you are selling, and
  • laughing and joking with customers and in general acting as if you are sharing your clothes line with friends.

In contrast to surface acting, the negative effects are less profound in deep acting, as you are already experiencing the emotion that you want to convey.

Expressing naturally felt emotions. At the highest level of immersion exists spontaneous and genuine emotional labor. At this level you do not have to deliberately summon the correct emotions, because you naturally and spontaneously feel them. For example, a nurse who sees an injured child might naturally feel sympathy and concern. An accountant might naturally get excited about calculating the effectiveness of a new tax strategy.

As the emotions that you are expressing are your true emotions, and therefore almost identical to the emotions that you have to express, we do not see any emotional dissonance with spontaneous and genuine emotional labor.

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The takeaway: Aim for deeper, more natural acting

Emotional labor can be seen as a movie in which you are the actor. You are not going to win that Oscar by just haphazardly reciting your lines. The more you truly feel the emotions of the character you are portraying, the more convincing a part you can deliver.

And, importantly, the quality of your performance affects the extent to which you experience stress and negative emotions. The more you believe your part is a true piece of your identity, the easier it will become, and the greater the chance that you will take joy out of performing your part instead of feeling stress.

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How to achieve more spontaneous and genuine emotional labor by aligning your identity with your role

Before we can look at how to become more spontaneous and genuine in our job, we first have to look at what emotions tell us about our identity.

Emotions play an important part in helping us know who we are, as emotions can help us determine what is meaningful to us, and what isn’t. Think for instance of how experiencing joy in helping people may tell you that you might want to pursue a job in a social sector, or how experiencing frustration when you have to tell other people what to do may indicate that being a manager is not the right job for you.

The more you identify with a role, the more likely that you will spontaneously feel the socially appropriate emotions. Moreover, the more you spontaneously feel the expected emotions, the more your identity is validated, essentially creating an upward spiral.

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So the important part here is to try and identify with your job. Next time you notice yourself feeling stressed or frustrated by having to fake emotions, try to think:

  • What made me choose this job in the first place?
  • Why is this job important to me?
  • How is this job important for who I am as a person?
  • How can or will this job help me achieve what I want to be?

Next try to focus in on the positive sides of your job. Ask:

  • What do I like about my job? Are there any particular tasks I enjoy?
  • What do I like about my co-workers?
  • What do I like about my boss or clients?
  • What perks are related to me doing this job?

Going over these points will help you look past your momentary stress and frustrations, and see them as smaller temporary parts that will help you achieve your end-goal.

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What to do when you don’t strongly identify with your job?

Even if you don’t have a strong identification with your role, performing your role can still be valued if it provides an opportunity to live out your unique identity or values. You may also be able to identify alternative display rules that are more in line with your identity.


Aligning emotional labor with your unique identity and values

Even if you don’t have a strong identification with your role, performing your role can still be valued if it is an expression of what you believe is an important part of your bigger, unique identity.

An example might be that you don’t feel quite at home in a competitive sales department where you have to sell at the highest price possible, but you might value that you can use your extroverted personality in order to convince your clients.

Seeing this as a means to an end to express your extraverted identity will help you alleviate the negative effects of faking enthusiasm for sales.

So it is therefore very important to try and determine what is meaningful for you, and how you can get that out of your job. If the emotions that you have to express are consistent with your values, then enacting those rules will become identity affirming, even if you are not experiencing the implied emotion.


Consider alternative display rules

Additionally, like most norms in organizations, there is usually some freedom in how you enact the organization’s display rules. Think of for instance in education. Schools have certain display rules about how their teacher must present themselves towards their students. But still there are vastly different interpretations, as one teacher may be very strict and the other more free-spirited.

It is therefore important to try to enact the organization’s display rules in a way that is most consistent with your own valued identity. This will help you in reducing emotional dissonance and the fatigue that comes with it.

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How can you benefit from deep/surface acting when you highly identify with your job?

But what about the other side of the coin. Maybe you have found your calling, or your dream job, and you do strongly identify with your job? Should you still engage in surface/deep acting?

Studies have found that surface/deep acting might help high identifiers, when they:

Lets go over them in more detail.


Not yet proficient

Imagine being a rookie consultant and you have to propose solutions to a client, but you don’t feel as confident as you believe a good consultant ought to be. Still, you need to come over as confident, as these impressions are an important part of your credibility as a consultant.

In order to convey this confidence, following the saying “fake it ’til you make it”, you can engage in surface/deep acting until you acquire the needed skills and confidence to experience the identity-conforming emotions that you seek. The benefit of surface/deep acting in this case is two-fold.

First having your acting appreciated by your client will help you validate your claim as being a legitimate consultant, and second you will rack up some evidence that you are a good consultant which will lead to increased actual confidence.


Lack emotion-related attributes

As a high‐identifier you may also lack certain attributes that might be needed to convey a certain expression. As a team leader, you might really love your job, but feel that when there is an important deadline ahead, people view you as too soft. By engaging in deep acting, you can adopt a tough and stern demeanor, that will help you convey the need to work harder.


Momentary impediments

It’s also possible that, despite strongly identifying with your job, you sometimes feel a bit out of it. You might be tired, preoccupied with other concerns such as a sick relative, or maybe you just feel a genuine lack of rapport with a client. In such cases, you can try to engage in surface/deep acting to still elicit the emotion that is needed to get the job done.


Tactical emotions

The last place where surface/deep acting may be beneficial is when you want to use your expression in a tactical manner. Think of for instance a manager who masks his or her negative emotions when walking through the office so as not to upset others. The other way around also holds true. Think for instance of a manager who engages in deep acting to elicit negative emotions, in order to motivate his team to work harder in times of need.


Recap of how to reduce stress by using emotional labor to your advantage

Emotional labor–essentially having to “fake” emotions–is a phenomenon that most of us will encounter, whether we identify with our job or not.

In order to reduce the stress and negative effects of emotional labor, try to steer away from surface acting, and aim to really evoke the emotion that you want to convey. This will ease the cognitive strain, and reduce feelings of inauthenticity. To reach this “deeper acting,” consider

  • Listening to music that evokes the desired emotion
  • Participating in activities that put you in the appropriate mood (e.g., chatting with liked colleagues when you need to be in good mood, or inversely, withdraw yourself from the social side if you feel that you need to take up a more stern demeanor )
  • Learning about the aspects of your work that interest you and will motivate you to commit yourself to the fullest

Second, identifying with your job will help you reach genuine and spontaneous emotional labor. In order to facilitate this process, map out

  • what you believe is important to you,
  • what makes you unique, and
  • how you can apply this part of your values and yourself in your job.

Even if you don’t identify with the actions, having a meaningful end goal (e.g. “I am a great consultant”), will help deal with the stress.

Of course, if you feel fatigued and stressed out and simply cannot identify with or find any meaning in your job, you may want to consider whether your job is right for you. If you are feeling on the verge of burn-out, please consult our posts on preventing work burnout or the ultimate burnout recovery. But for many workers, practicing the techniques of

  • Deep acting
  • Identifying with your job, or
  • Identifying meaningful end goals

can help preserve your well-being and reduce work stress.