Lam: Is that stress part of what you call emotional labor?
David: Stress is a particular kind of emotional labor. Generally, emotional labor is an idea that every single person, when they go to work, does the physical or intellectual part of their work, and they also do emotional labor. For example, going to a meeting and being polite or trying to stay focused while a lot of change is going on.
Ironically, the conflict of emotional labor was first widely studied when it came to airline attendants. They called it the PanAM smile: flight attendants trying to do their jobs when there was a lot of stress. A lot of workplaces were saying [to their workers] that they have to be positive and happy.
Lam: Do you think this problem is distinctly American? Or do you see this everywhere?
David: It tends to be a little more Western, but there are subtle differences from country to country. Organizations will often have display rules, which emotions are okay to demonstrate at work. From Amy Edmondson’s work on psychological safety, we know that teams that feel safe enough to articulate discontent or talk about frustration are the most high-functioning teams. When we only allow some emotions, we create a huge amount of emotional labor. We also create a situation for individuals that is psychologically unhealthy and undermines the organization’s ability to learn and function more effectively.