EMOTIONAL LABOUR AND THE ART OF AUTHENTICITY

I’ve been leading a Customer Experience program at a tech company over the last 2+ years, and like many others, I’m pretty sure I’ve experienced burnout. Can it be diagnosed? I’d love to hear what others would describe as being your tell-tale signs.

Burnout is brutal. For me, I realized I might be experiencing something like it when I started doubting my competency. When you’ve been in a role for a long time and have experienced validation from both your team and customers that it’s going well, why would you start to question your competency? I’d say that’s an internal response to a situation that needs some managing.

I recently had a realization on why I’ve found this work to be so exhausting at times, and it’s been liberating. This work I’m doing is called “emotional labour.”

This term was first introduced to me while listening to Adam Grant’s podcast, WorkLife, in the episode called “Faking your Emotions at Work.” During the podcast, Adam describes emotional labour in a super intuitive way. Here it is (totally paraphrased):

Do you remember that feeling you had as a kid when you received a rather unlikeable gift from a relative? When you didn’t like it but you had to produce a response of gratitude and be thankful for the present? Well that feeling is what many people experience in a service-related role. They do this “acting” all day, not for their aunt whom they love, but with strangers. And that’s emotional labour.

(I’d highly recommend you give the podcast a listen, by the way, here’s the link on Spotify).

In my experience, without recognition of this dynamic that’s at play, emotional labour can easily leave you feeling overworked, leading to some form of burnout or negative physiological response. There are other things that contribute to burnout too, of course. What I’ve realized from learning about emotional labour though is that providing a supportive and valuable client experience doesn’t come from acting all day, it comes from being authentic and real every single minute of the way.

Going back to Adam’s talk, he describes the ability to do “surface-acting” versus “deep-acting”.

Surface acting is like it sounds, you’re wearing a mask to fake an emotion. Deep acting on the other hand is your genuine, emotional response to something.

It changes the conversation and what I’ve realized, leads to better support and problem solving for clients.

Surface Acting:

  • Speech sounds scripted

  • Conveys fake sympathy

  • E.g. “Sorry to hear about that issue you’ve run into today, Susan. We try our best to make sure you have a good experience. Your issue has been submit to our support team and you’ll hear from them when it’s been resolved.”

Deep Acting:

  • Is natural, thoughtful speech

  • Conveys the emotion that the experience creates e.g. surprise, fascination, frustration

  • E.g. “Oh no, you’re running into that bug again? I’m so sorry, Susan! Our team spent a lot of time working on this yesterday and thought they covered their bases. We must have missed something and made a mistake.”

Doesn’t really sound like acting anymore, does it? It’s really just you, being you. You, doing your best, and communicating that in a human way. This communication style leads to better relationships built on trust and understanding. It also builds a sense of self-worth that’s not based on external validation, but your own happiness.

When I’m being true to myself, I’m able to sustain my energy much more easily. It never feels good to be someone you’re not.

And this applies beyond my role in the services industry to any environment I find myself in.

Are you wondering about emotional labour or if you’re experiencing burnout? I found some things to be particularly useful as I worked my way through it.

WRITE

Do some writing. Grab a journal and a pen and just GO. Don’t stop to think about what you’re saying, just free-write. You might come up with some epiphanies of your own.

LISTEN

There are tons of resources out there on different causes of burnout. A quick Google search I’m sure would do the trick, or check out a podcast like TED. I found several amazing talks by Vanessa Loder, Emily Bremner, and Melissa Sweet to be particularly inspiring.

BE HONEST

At the end of the day, you have to say it like it is. Try being honest with the people in your life who might help you make good decisions, provide new opportunities, and reassure you.

Sarah Steiner