Emotional (Not Manual) Labor

Leadership roles may be draining, but savvy chiefs can train themselves to reduce the emotional toll, says best-selling author Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now. 

We all know work can take an emotional toll. Navigating turbulent team dynamics, managing conflicts, and problem solving under pressure can become emotionally draining. Every leader feels it, if only because leaders tip the emotional state of their direct reports for better or for worse. That’s an unconscious, primal task of leadership.

This drain seems particularly taxing in jobs that require what social scientists call “emotional labor,” having to seem to be in a positive emotional state when we don’t feel it. This holds particularly, for instance, in retail and food service jobs, where slogans like “service with a smile” and “the customer is always right” convey the requirement that employees express socially-desired emotions and acquiesce to customer demands despite whatever true feelings might roil within them. Roles like doctor, nurse, teacher, and social worker also do a lot of emotional labor. These professionals constantly navigate the upsets of the people they serve, and then often feel that anger, sadness, or distress to effectively do their jobs.

Perhaps no surprise, people with high emotional intelligence (EI) perform better in such emotionally demanding jobs and are less likely to experience burnout over time. A large-scale study of emotional labor found that “(EI) is likely to help individuals to know both when to perform emotional labor and how to alter emotional behavior to meet organizational goals.”

So, if your job requires such added extra emotional work, developing strengths in specific emotional intelligence competencies can both improve your performance and help sustain your emotional health. For instance, emotional self-awareness and emotional self-control, help us to recognize our feelings and manage them better in difficult situations, such as treating a patient with a terminal illness or dealing with an irritating employee.

Leaders can help frontline employees handle their upsets by deploying the teamwork and coach and mentor competencies to create support systems for their employees. In an emotionally demanding job, having a mentor and team to talk to about the troubles such loaded work brings can be tremendously beneficial. Leaders can also keep an eye on their employees’ work/life balance; a healthy one can prevent burnout.

Finally, empathy and the ability to find emotional balance come into play. Over and above simply connecting with people, those with emotionally demanding jobs often need to shield themselves from becoming too emotional, which always harms job performance.

Want to up your emotional intelligence? Mindful awareness helps you develop further on any of the EI competencies. And if you feel your job seems emotionally demanding, take time for yourself to recharge. Mindfulness sessions can help manage stress, while journaling can be a way to reflect on and process your emotions.   

If developing emotional intelligence on your own seems forbidding, a coach can help you cultivate your emotional intelligence. By honing the EI competencies that directly help you metabolize toxic emotions you can excel in an emotionally demanding job while sustaining your emotional health.

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence Coaching Certification.