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Exploring Emotional Demands at Work

Emotions at work

Image showing young children in early years settingEmotions affect all areas of our lives; this research focuses on their utility and impact during our working lives. Emotions are important for the following reasons: they provide us with the motivation to take action; help us notice and avoid threats; make decisions and communicate with others about how we feel and find out how others feel. All of these functions provide us with vital information to carry out our work in terms of enabling us to evaluative our own emotional state and that of others. Positive emotions such as happiness and excitement encourage us to approach situations and others with positive energy and are helpful for facilitating social interaction. Negative emotions such as anxiety motivate us to pay attention to sources of threat with a view to avoiding the threat if it becomes too great (fleeing). Less severe forms of anxiety can motivate us to take action to reduce the source of threat such as extra study for an exam. Emotions through expression (facial, non-verbal) help us communicate with others, accurate identification of facial emotion or body language can help improve how we interact with others. Misidentifying emotions or ignoring emotions can lead to problems with other people, for example through misunderstanding their emotional state. Other problems can occur such as a build up of stress through experiencing frequent anxiety episodes without giving yourself time to recover or time to think about different strategies or actions to reduce the frequency. All forms of work will have their emotional challenges, but the Health and Safety Executive have highlighted human service professions as experiencing particularly emotionally challenging (HSE 2011). Occupations such as doctors, nurses and social workers have to work with people when they are at their most vulnerable. Other professions such as call centre agents often have to work with people when they are annoyed or angry. Therefore we would expect that people in these professions would benefit most from using emotion skills.

Emotional labour

Strong emotions can occur in staff while at work, but their professional role requires them to be emotionally neutral or display an emotion unrelated to the one they are feeling (e.g. being pleasant and calm when someone is being angry with your service). This mismatch between what employees feel and what they are expected to display is called emotional labour (Hochschild, 1983). Emotional labour takes energy to produce and maintain and is a further form of strain.

Consequences of emotions at work

One key consequence of dealing with chronic stress at work is burnout, when one feels detached from the job and people, unable to accomplish tasks and emotionally exhausted. Those who experience burnout often leave the job or profession or suffer ill-health (e.g. Brotheridge and Grandey 2002, Zapf 2002).

Adults often ignore physiological signs of anxiety such as faster heart rate. Physiologically we prepare to take physical action in response to a threat, but in modern day situations, this is not always acceptable or desirable, so the energy released, triggered by hormones such as cortisol to release metabolic energy to fuel physical action, during an anxiety episode is not dissipated efficiently. If action is not taken to reduce anxiety situations or strategies created to cope better then over time experiencing anxiety, frustration or anger can lead to high blood pressure and other physical problems (Dickerson et al 2004). This is why exercise is often advised for managing these emotions and to help manage anxiety situations. In addition it has been shown that cortisol is released particularly in response to uncontrollable social threat (Dickerson et al 2004), therefore establishing numerous planning strategies can help create a sense of control and reduce the number of occasions in which cortisol is released. Some of these strategies can be found through developing emotion skills which help people identify and manage their own and other people's emotions more effectively which together have been labelled as emotional intelligence (Mayer et al 2008; Petrides 2010). More information about emotion skills can be found here.

The research described on this website focuses on whether emotion skills can be learned and whether emotion skills training has an impact on outcomes such as stress and burnout. More information about current research projects can be found here.


Brotheridge, C. M., & Grandey, A. A. (2002). Emotional labor and burnout: Comparing two perspectives of "people work". Journal of Vocational Behavior, 60(1), 17-39.

Dickerson, S. S. and M. E. Kemeny, 2004 (2004). Acute stressors and cortisol responses: a theoretical integration and synthesis of laboratory research. Psychological Bulletin 130: 355-391

Health and safety Executive. (2013). Stress and Psychological Disorders in Great Britain 2013. Accessed online 13 May 2013.

Hochschild, A. R. (1983). The managed heart: Commercialisation of human feelings. Berkley: University of California Press.

Mayer, J. D., Roberts, R. D., & Barsade, S. G. (2008). Human Abilities: Emotional Intelligence. Annual Review of Psychology, 59(1), 507-536

Petrides, K. V. (2010). Trait Emotional Intelligence Theory. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 3(2), 136-139.

Zapf, D. (2002). Emotion work and psychological well-being: A review of the literature and some conceptual considerations. Human Resource Management Review, 12(2), 237-268.