Three ways RTW professionals can manage emotional labour

Gabrielle Lis

Burnt out? Dissatisfied? Struggling to manage your emotions 9 to 5? Emotional labour expert Dr Alicia Grandey has insights for RTW professionals who are feeling the strain of being "boundary-spanners" at work.

You learn a lot about emotional regulation living with a toddler, mostly because they are so bad at it. Little kids wear their hearts on their sleeves. Emotions are almost always immediately expressed: they feel angry, they hit; joyful, they dance; scared, they hide; jealous, they snatch. Whatever they feel, they do. And if they can’t do what they feel, the strain is palpable. It’s obvious, watching a three year old waiting in line to get a sticker at the end of gymnastics class, that managing emotions, expressing them in socially acceptable rather than instantly gratifying ways, takes effort. Often, this effort is outsourced to care-givers, the ones anchoring their children in place whilst the tiny sticker enthusiasts attempt to hurl themselves towards the front of the queue. Although we generally become better at emotionally regulating ourselves as we age, the effort never really goes away. 

Emotional labour refers to the effortful strategies required to achieve emotional regulation at work. When our emotional labour is successful, we behave in line with workplace “display rules”. Depending on where you work, display rules might include friendliness, calm professionalism, warmth, assertiveness, agreeableness etc. Display rules tend to be particularly demanding in customer-facing roles. It’s not just, “don’t hit the customer when they annoy you,” it’s “smile, go the extra mile, be the brand”. This would be impossible for a toddler. Most adults can manage it most of the time, but it takes work. Eventually, that work can take a toll on physical and emotional health.

Bespectacled woman sitting in front of a laptop

Managing emotions at work can be challenging in caring industries - Photo by on Unsplash

Many RTW professionals have told us that emotional labour is a huge part of their job. 

An injured worker might be angry, uncooperative or rude: you’re still expected to be polite and supportive. A treating practitioner might submit forms late and incomplete, then complain about treatment delays: you’re still expected to take a respectful, collaborative approach. A worker might call you in tears, asking for a form of help that the system doesn’t allow you to provide: and after telling them no, you’re expected to immediately provide cheerful service to the next caller, or interact professionally with colleagues, even though you feel like crying yourself.

Dr Alicia A. Grandey is Professor of Psychology at Penn State University, and one of the leading researchers on emotional labour. She recently spoke with RTW Matters about the emotional labour performed by caring workers such as RTW professionals.

“Sounds like these professionals act as "boundary-spanners".  They bridge the boundary between the government/insurance companies and injured clients.  As such, they are trying to resolve cases quickly for the companies, but also trying to offer support and a listening ear to clients, which takes more time.  They may also find themselves caught in the middle, where they disagree with one side’s view, but still have to maintain that caring and professional demeanour.”

One method of coping with feelings that run counter to workplace display rules is “surface acting” – the grin-and-bear-it approach to managing professionally unacceptable emotions. A surface actor simply plasters on a smile and supresses the irritation or sadness they feel work. I say simply, but for most people surface acting is exhausting to maintain. Inauthenticity takes a toll. Researchers have linked surface acting to lower cognitive performance, burnout, anxiety and poor sleep.

“Deep acting” is a second option. With surface acting you modify behaviour only but with deep acting you use strategies to change the way you feel. For instance, refocusing your attention can change your perception of a situation, as can making a genuine effort to understand a difficult person’s point of view. 

Take the tardy doctor mentioned above. A case manager who feels frustrated about this doctor’s behaviour might take a deep breath and remind herself that workers’ compensation paperwork can be arduous and confusing. Many GPs only treat a couple of workers’ compensation patients each year; struggling with the paperwork is understandable. The case manager could also remind herself that, when the GP complains about delays to treatment approvals, they are just trying to look out for the wellbeing of their patient. Instead of thinking, “hypocrite!” the case manager might think, “well-intentioned,” maybe even, “needs my help”. Those new thoughts change the case manager’s feelings, making it less of a strain to maintain professionalism and be collaborative.  

Deep acting still takes effort but there are some signs that, unlike surface acting, it offers rewards. Research has shown links between deep acting, job satisfaction and feelings of accomplishment.

Deep acting is also more convincing than shallow acting, which can come across as insincere. This difference may be particularly important when – as in the RTW field – customer service is less likely to involve a one-off interaction, and more likely to take the form of an ongoing relationship. Relationships thrive on authenticity, while obvious phoniness can breed mistrust. 

But there is a third possibility for managing difficult emotions at work: advocacy. Consider the example we gave above of the worker who finds him or herself in a challenging position and asks for help that a RTW Coordinator is not supposed to provide. Instead of accepting that there’s nothing to be done, the RTW Coordinator might talk to their own manager about the situation. 

Dr Grandey told RTWMatters that boundary-spanners should let managers know when policies appear unfair to clients.

“Use your voice for them.  Seek to understand why it needs to be that way, as a way to both help your client, but also to help yourself perform your job with less distress.  There may be higher-order reasons that protect the company, there may be historical reasons things are done that way, or it may simply be that no one has identified a better way for things to work.  Learning the rationale could help enable one to continue to follow the policy, or could provide an opportunity to enact change.”

Self-advocacy is also important for RTW professionals who feel unsupported to meet the emotional demands of their job.

 “As a recent HBR article noted, managers need to learn that compassion fatigue and burnout is a function of the work design, not the employees themselves,” Professor Grandey said. 

“If your manager thinks certain employees should just "dig deeper" or "toughen up", they may benefit from a quick assessment or survey, to see how many in their company are in a state of burnout.  Much evidence supports that when in a state of burnout, employees make more mistakes, avoid work or quit, lose sleep and have symptoms with later health insurance costs.  

“The alternative to this "keep working til you break" mentality, is to proactively redesign work to reduce the most problematic factors (e.g., unfair or unclear decisions, understaffed offices without support) and encourage employees to take breaks and offer support for their psychological and physical health, BEFORE it gets to that point of exhaustion.  You could point out that THAT manager will get the best from his/her employees in the long run.”

You can read more on emotional labour and other related topics on Professor Grandey’s website This article is based on an academic paper she wrote with Gordon Sayre, Emotional Labor: Regulating Emotions for a Wage.  

Published 11 February, 2020 | Updated 15 February, 2022