Emotions at the Workplace Summary

Emotions at the Workplace Summary

Based on the information gained from Chapter 11, how is the experience and expression of emotion different in different types of jobs? Compare, for example, emotion in the work of a minister, a soldier, and a college professor. Are the emotional demands of some jobs more challenging than others?


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CHAPTER 11 Processes of Emotion in the Workplace



  • Appreciate the ways in which traditional organizing has been portrayed as rational and logical and be able to provide arguments for why emotion should be considered an integral part of organizational life.
  • Understand the concept of emotional labor as communication that is in some way inauthentic and performed for the benefit of the organization.
  • Be able to contrast emotional labor with emotional work—authentic emotions that are also a part of many workers’ jobs.
  • See the ways in which emotion permeates our relationships with coworkers in both satisfying and destructive ways.
  • Understand the role of communication both in causing stress and burnout and in helping organizations and individuals cope with stress and burnout.

There is a tradition of rationality in our consideration of organizational life. Think, for example, about some of the models of organization we looked at in the first half of this book—maximizing efficiency in a machine-like factory, enhancing the effectiveness of organizational systems, making the most of human resources, even managing corporate culture—all these models suggest that organizations run through reasoning. The same is true of the processes we’ve considered so far in the second half of this book, including decision making, conflict management, and leadership and organizational change. Even when we look at current trends in the popular management literature—everything from knowledge management and learning organizations to “money ball” strategies in baseball and business—the presumption has been that successful organizations are places where cool heads and logical thinking prevail.

Since the early 1990s, however, there has been a growing interest in the emotional side of organizational life and a growing appreciation for the tension between emotion and rationality in the workplace. Many decades ago, human relations scholars advocated looking more closely at human feelings in the organization, but the only feeling considered in those years was “satisfaction.” However, researchers are now beginning to see just how complex emotional life in organizations is. In this chapter, we explore these issues by first considering how scholars have been moved to look at emotion in organizational life. We will examine emotion as part of the job and look at the ways in which emotion permeates organizational relationships. We will then consider one area of emotion in the workplace that has received a great deal of research attention: the study of stress, burnout, and social support in organizations.


Most models of organizational life see the workplace as a setting governed by logic and rationality. According to these models, jobs consist of tasks and the cognitive functions required for those tasks. We train people in the logic and mechanics of how to do their jobs. We manage conflict and change by thinking logically about what is best for the company and the employees. And when we make decisions, we carefully weigh the pros and cons of each decision and make a logical choice that will maximize gains and minimize losses.

Of course, anyone who has spent any time in an organization recognizes how inaccurate the above description really is. Our interactions are often governed by hot emotion rather than cool logic. We typically make choices about job and career based on gut feeling rather than a spreadsheet of pros and cons. Unfortunately, it has taken organizational theorists awhile to catch up with these commonsense ideas about organizational life. But scholars are now on board in appreciating the emotional nuances that are so prevalent in the workplace.

This shift in focus can be illustrated with a look back to our discussion of decision making in Chapter 8. We noted in that chapter that scholars rarely see decision making as a purely logical and data-driven process. People (in the workplace or otherwise) don’t often follow the prescribed steps of defining the problem, establishing criteria, searching for information, evaluating alternatives, and reaching a decision. But even when theorists moved away from this purely logical model, they moved to models that considered the concept of bounded rationality in the workplace (e.g., March & Simon, 1958; Simon, 1987). Decision making couldn’t be perfectly rational because of cognitive and situational limits on rationality. But rationality was still the norm; it was merely limited. However, communication scholars Dennis Mumby and Linda Putnam (1992) turned this notion on its head by suggesting that instead of looking at bounded rationality, we should consider bounded emotionality. That is, these scholars asked us to begin looking at emotional life as a central focus of organizational research and to consider the ways in which paying attention to emotion might lead to new ways of understanding the workplace.

We turn now to several areas of research in which scholars have heeded this call by looking at emotion in organizational life (see Miller, 2013, for a full review of this literature). We look first at scholarship that has considered emotion as part of the job. We will then look at the organizational emotion that arises through relationships with coworkers and others and consider more general ideas about emotion rules and emotional intelligence.

Emotion as Part of the Job

A wide range of occupations exist in which interaction with clients is a central aspect of the job. In many of these, communication between employees and clients involves some degree of emotional or affective content (see Waldron, 1994). Some examples are obvious. Nurses and physicians interact with dying patients in a hospice, deal with stressed-out families in an intensive care unit, and share the elation of birth in a maternity ward. Ministers counsel troubled parishioners, comfort grieving families, and rejoice with newlyweds. Emotional communication is also a requirement in less obvious occupations. The flight attendant must appear happy and attentive throughout a long cross-country flight (at least in first class!). A bill collector must remain stern and avoid any trace of sympathy in interactions. A cock tail waitress’s tips depend to a large extent on maintaining a friendly and cheerful demeanor.

Arlie Hochschild was the first scholar to deal systematically with this phenomenon in her book The Managed Heart (1983). She uses the term emotional labor to refer to jobs in which workers are expected to display certain feelings in order to satisfy organizational role expectations. Hochschild argues that when performing emotional labor, workers can engage in either surface acting or deep acting. For example, Hochschild’s original study of emotional labor involved airline flight attendants. Flight attendants involved in surface acting might just paste on a smile to satisfy the airline’s requirement of a friendly face in the cabin. However, flight attendants might also try to evoke more realistic emotional displays by using deep acting techniques, such as imagining the airplane cabin as a friendly living room or sympathizing with the stress that irate passengers might be feeling.

 Case in Point: “The Cruise from Hell”

On February 7, 2013, the Carnival Triumph set sail from the port of Galveston, Texas. Then, in the early morning darkness of February 10, a fire broke out in the engine room and all of the passengers made their way to muster stations. For the next few days, the cruise ship was adrift in the Gulf of Mexico and the experience came to be known as the “Cruise from Hell”: “the tilting boat with sewage seeping down the walls, urine-soaked floors, and passengers sleeping in the cold and rain to avoid the noxious fumes inside their cabins” (Conant, 2013). There was limited food, unbearable heat, and with toilets broken, passengers were given red biohazard bags for disposing feces. And through it all, who was charged with picking up those bags and doing everything possible to raise the spirits of miserable passengers? Members of the crew, of course.

It wasn’t an easy task. One strategy was “Free beer and wine for everybody” (Drash, 2013) but alcohol could only do so much to appease people in a nasty situation who were expecting a relaxed vacation. So crew members went into high “emotional labor” mode. They “worked around the clock to make the situation somewhat bearable. They constantly checked on passengers, often with smiles on their faces” (Drash, 2013). Many passengers reported being amazed and noted that they did the dirty work that no one would want to do. Crew members agreed that the situation was stressful, but they kept trying to push through it without showing signs of strain. And in the true spirit of the emotional labor concept, one crew member explained why: “It’s very simple … It’s a part of the job.”

Since Hochschild’s book, the notion of emotional labor has been further developed by scholars in a variety of disciplines, including sociology, management, and communication. Some of the research has involved case studies of workers in jobs involving emotional labor, including waitresses (Leidner, 1993), flight attendants (Murphy, 1998), workers in emergency call centers (Shuler & Sypher, 2000; Tracy & Tracy, 1998), cruise ship employees (Tracy, 2000), financial advisors (Miller & Koesten, 2008), correctional officers (Tracy, 2005), firefighters (Scott & Myers, 2005), and judges (Scarduzio, 2011). Other work has attempted to develop models of the emotional labor process (e.g., Kruml & Geddes, 2000; Morris & Feldman, 1996) that consider factors such as the antecedents of emotional labor (e.g., gender, task requirements, closeness of monitoring), dimensions of emotional labor (e.g., frequency of emotional display, variety of expressed emotion, degree of emotional dissonance), and consequences of emotional labor (e.g., burnout and job dissatisfaction).

Several generalizations can be forwarded about the body of work on emotional labor:

  • Most research considers frontline service workers in organizations that sanction (and pay for) emotion in the service of customers. Thus, emotional labor is seen as a way to increase the success—and profits—of the organization.
  • Most research considers emotion that is explicitly controlled through training and employee manuals. For example, Steinberg and Figart (1999, p. 9) quote an employee handbook at a gourmet deli as directing: “Under no circumstance should a customer ever wonder if you are having a bad day. Your troubles should be masked with a smile.”
  • Most research considers emotional displays that are created through deep acting or surface acting—in other words, emotional displays that are in some way not authentic expressions of current or enduring emotion.
  • When workers enact emotional labor, they are very aware that they are acting for the purpose of managerial and (sometimes) personal profit (Miller, Considme & Garner, 2007).
  • Emotional labor carries with the potential for negative job outcomes such as stress and anxiety, particularly when workers feel dissonance from the belief that they are “faking it” on the job.

Not all job-related emotion has these characteristics, however. Ashforth and Humphrey (1993) point this out when they state: “The problem with this conception of emotional labor is that it does not allow for the instances whereby one spontaneously and genuinely experiences and expresses the expected emotion” (p. 94). Clearly, there are times when workers feel emotions on the job and express those emotions in interactions. For example, a teacher might feel joy—and express that joy—when a student finally understands long division. A nurse might feel sorrow—and express that sorrow—on the death of a patient. This kind of genuine emotion on the job—what Miller et al. (2007) call emotional work—involves people who are not in frontline service jobs but instead hold professional positions in industries such as health care, education, or human services. Workers in these roles rarely have instructions on emotion management that are explicitly spelled out in employee handbooks or during training sessions. However, such individuals clearly do deal with a lot of emotion on the job—both of a genuine and managed variety. For example, a nurse must cope with genuine emotion (e.g., the sorrow of having a patient die) and express emotions that he may not actually feel (e.g., dealing with difficult patients in a cheerful or professional way).

A number of scholars have further investigated the importance of emotion in work in a consideration of compassion in the workplace. For example, Miller (2007) looked at a number of jobs that involve emotional work in her consideration of workers who are engaged in compassionate communication. In her interviews with workers in a wide range of human service occupations, she found that workers communicate emotionally in ways that involve processes of noticing, connecting, and responding (see also Kanov et al., 2004). Workers engaged in emotional work must notice the need for compassion and the details of clients’ lives that will lead to appropriate communication. They must then connect to clients by taking the others’ perspective and establishing an empathic bond. Finally, they must respond with verbal and nonverbal behaviors that can make a difference for troubled clients. Way and Tracy (2012) further developed this model in a study of hospice workers. These researchers highlighted both the rewards that workers gain through compassionate work—even, perhaps especially, in a setting such as hospice—and the importance of communication in compassion.

Emotion as Part of Workplace Relationships

Emotion is not just important when it is a prescribed part of a person’s job. Indeed, individuals in all organizational roles feel emotion in the workplace. Several scholars have argued that we should be looking less at emotions required by the job and more at emotions that emerge from relationships in the workplace (Waldron, 2012). Miller et al. (2007) have called this type of emotion in the workplace emotion at work, and Sandelands and Boudens (2000) make a forceful case for looking not at the nature of the job but at relationships with others in the workplace as the major source of organizational emotion. After reviewing many narratives of work life, these scholars conclude:

When people talk about their work and their feelings they rarely speak about what they do on the job or the meaning of the job. They talk almost exclusively about their involvement in the life of the group…. Feelings are not identified with evaluations of the job, even less with personal growth and development. Instead, feelings are strongly identified with a person’s place and activities in the life of the group and the place of their work in the larger scheme of things. (Sandelands & Boudens, 2000, p. 52)

A number of aspects of work relationships are largely emotional. We often have coworkers (or bosses or employees) that we like or dislike, that evoke joy or irritation, that are exhilarating or maddening. Our work with these coworkers might create and sustain emotions, including anger, frustration, elation, excitement, or boredom. On the positive side of this emotional spectrum is the emotion of compassion highlighted in the last section. In addition to considering compassion as part of the job, scholars have also worked at ways in which organizational members communicate compassion in workplace relationships (see Spotlight on Scholarship in Chapter 4). These scholars see compassion as a form of “everyday talk” in the organization (Frost et al., 2006) and believe that a culture of compassion can be nurtured through effective leadership: “there is always grief somewhere in the room … You can’t eliminate such suffering, nor can you ask people to check their emotions at the door. But you can use your leadership to begin the healing process” (Dutton, Frost, Worline, Lilius & Kanov, 2002, p. 61).

 Spotlight on Scholarship: Lining Up for Emotion

You get to the airport early because you know the lines might be long—and they are. You shuffle with other passengers through the snaking queue, using the time to stare at your smartphone—checking e-mail, scrolling through your newsfeed on Facebook, catching up on your Words with Friends games—anything to tamp down the stress you always feel in airports and to avoid talking with others in line. As you progress, you hear commanding voices of TSA agents reminding you to pull out your laptop, remove your shoes, have your liquids in 3-ounce containers stored in a quart size plastic bag. You see a seasoned traveler sigh with exasperation as she is held up by a family negotiating the security line with two small children. You hold your arms up in the scanner and wait until the TSA officer gives you the “all clear” sign – at least you won’t have to be patted down. You then move on to your gate to begin the next phase of your anxiety-filled day of travel.

This all-too familiar scenario was the focus of Shawna Malvini Redden’s recent article investigating the emotional experiences of passengers in airports. Nearly two million people fly on commercial airliners in the United States every year, and Malvini Redden notes that “passengers bring emotional baggage to the airport along with their carry-on luggage” (Malvini Redden, 2013, p. 123). As this chapter documents, most of the research on emotion in organizations has concentrated on the experiences of organizational members and, often, employees who are providing service to customers and clients. Malvini Redden wanted to look at emotion from the vantage point of customers by examining the repercussions of interactions between airport personnel and passengers. Her research centered on thirty-six one-way flights over a six-month period that involved a variety of airports (primarily Sky Harbor in Phoenix and Sacramento International Airport). She observed behavior in security lines and elsewhere, talked with many passengers, and conducted formal interviews with nineteen men and women.

Malvini Redden found that a variety of emotions characterized the experiences of passengers: occasionally positive emotions such as excitement and anticipation, but more often negative emotions such as anxiety and frustration or neutral emotions of disengagement. For TSA employees, neutral emotions may stem from boredom but “passengers feel they must contain, inhibit, or mask their feelings to avoid censure, additional scrutiny, or punishment” (Malvini Redden, 2013, p. 136). This is not surprising, as the organizational setting of the airport in our post-September 11 culture turns the table from a situation in which the customer is always right to one in which the customer is an ongoing target of suspicion and surveillance. This shift is obviously stressful, and the need to stand in lines only serves to escalate anxiety. Malvini Redden argues that there is “considerable effort for travelers as they try to ‘act right’ in line” (p. 140). Further, because standing in line is compulsory at airports, the need to control emotion can be seen as an emotional tax that must be paid in order to successfully move to the next phase of the trip. “For most air passengers, the emotional tax is likely small, similar to a mandatory bridge toll … For others though, emotional taxes may be more significant, like bribes extracted to cross third-world borders” (p. 141).

There is an old saying that the only sure things in life are death and taxes. In today’s world of travel, we could also add airport security lines to that list, and Malvini Redden’s work suggests that there is an emotional cost to be paid for the experience.

Malvini Redden, S. (2013). How lines organize compulsory interaction, emotion management, and “emotional taxes”: The implications of passenger emotion and expression in airport security lines. Management Communication Quarterly, 27, 121–149.

At the other negative end of the spectrum, the emotional content of workplace relationships can include psychological abuse of others through workplace bullying. As Lutgen-Sandvik (2006) describes, bullying is “persistent, verbal, and nonverbal aggression at work that includes personal attacks, social ostracism, and a multitude of other painful messages and hostile interactions” (p. 406). Bullying is reportedly experienced by 90% of adults at some point in their work life and can cause great pain to its victims (Tracy, Lutgen-Sandvik & Alberts, 2006). For example, Lutgen-Sandvik (2008) reports on the trauma and stigmatization of bullying as workers try to make sense of the abuse in light of their ideas about themselves and others. These bullying victims find themselves “dealing with the perceived loss of professional reputation, organizational identity and self-confidence, and the long-term loss of core beliefs in justice or fairness” (Lutgen-Sandvik, 2008, p. 110). Like the creation of cultures of compassion, however, it is possible that organizational leaders and members can play a role in transforming a negative bullying environment (Cowan, 2012; Lutgen-Sandvik & Tracy, 2012).

In addition to these examples of compassion and bullying, feelings and emotional display—both positive and negative—are rampant in all types of organizational relationships. Waldron (2000) has argued that there are several aspects of work relationships that create potential for intense emotion in organizations. These include:

  • The tension between the public and the private in work relationships: Consider, for example, a case where friends outside the workplace are supervisor and subordinate within the workplace. Or consider a situation in which a private disclosure is revealed in a public meeting. In short, emotion is prevalent in the workplace because the private and the public are often in conflict in organizational life.
  • Relational networks and emotional “buzzing”: Waldron (2000) also points out that emotions can spread like wildfire in the workplace. One negative comment in a meeting can lead to a general uprising. A rumor about a possible downsizing leads to widespread panic. Or, on an everyday basis, ongoing complaints about the workplace can “spread like a contagion from worker to worker” (Korkki, 2013).
  • Conflicting allegiances: Because organizations are complex systems, workers often feel many loyalties. These conflicts might involve a distinction between what’s best for the individual and what’s best for the company. Or an individual might feel conflicting loyalties to various departments or individuals in an organization. Or allegiances might develop to subcultural groups that have formed in the workplace. In any of these cases, intense emotions (betrayal, dedication, jealousy) might be found.
  • Emotional rights and obligations at work: Finally, Waldron (2000) argues that most workplaces include a strong sense of relational morality—what is fair, right, and just in workplace relationships. When these norms are disrupted, strong emotions can be seen. For instance, Waldron (2000) quotes a woman who has been accused of “sleeping her way to a promotion” by a coworker: “I took my fist and cold-cocked that little sucker, and said [to him] ‘file a grievance.’ I have never had another comment, to my face, about what I have done” (Waldron, 2000, p. 72).

Emotion Rules and Emotional Intelligence

Emotion, then, is a central part of organizational life both in terms of interaction with customers or clients and in terms of interaction with other members of the organization. Some scholars have recently looked across these areas by trying to understand the emotion rules for emotional display in the workplace and by understanding the role that emotional intelligence might play in a wide variety of workplace interactions. For example, Kramer and Hess (2002) surveyed a wide range of workers to learn about the perceived rules that govern emotional life in an organization. These rules are summarized in Table 11.1. The fact that workers perceived these rules to exist clearly suggests that there are standards for emotional expression both with coworkers and with customers and clients. For example, the most often cited rule involved the need to be “professional.” This rule suggests standards for emotional control while interacting with clients and coworkers. For example, expressing anger through yelling and cussing would probably be seen as a violation of this rule, as would an expression of frustration or sadness through crying. It should be noted, however, that these emotional display rules are not hard-and-fast laws but will vary from workplace to workplace and will change over time. For example, Scott and Myers (2005) describe the ways in which rookie firefighters must be socialized into strategies for managing the emotions of their highly stressful jobs, and Morgan and Krone (2001) studied the extent to which “improvisations” in emotional behavior can lead to a bending of the rules of professional display in the workplace.

Table 11.1 Emotional Display Rules

Rule Explanation
“Express emotions in a professional way.” An individual should have control over emotions and maintain a businesslike atmosphere in the workplace.
“Express emotions to improve situations.” Emotional display should be managed in order to prevent or correct problems and create a positive work climate.
“Express emotions to the right people.” Positive and negative emotions should be directed to the appropriate person in the appropriate setting.
“Express emotions to help individuals.” Emotional display should be managed to provide support and assist others.
“Do not manage emotions for personal benefit to the detriment of others.” Emotional display should not be managed in a manner that is purely for self-promotion.
“The expression of certain emotions is always inappropriate.” Workers should maintain role-appropriate control of positive emotions and should not abuse others.

Table developed from Kramer, M. W. & Hess, J. A. (2002). Communication rules for the display of emotions in organizational settings. Management Communication Quarterly, 16, 66–80.

Finally, it is important to consider the concept of emotional intelligence that has recently become widely known in the popular management press (Goleman, 1995). This concept suggests that there are some people who are naturally better at understanding and managing the emotional content of workplace relationships and that emotional intelligence is also a skill that can be developed through training. Emotional intelligence involves both a clear understanding of the emotional needs of the situation and the self-awareness and self-control necessary for using the right emotional display to cope with the situation. In essence, those who have a high “emotional intelligence quotient” (EQ) have a clear understanding of the rules of emotional display and an ability to follow and adapt those rules as necessary. Although the concept of emotional intelligence has been embraced by many practicing managers, it has also been criticized by some scholars (see Dougherty & Krone, 2002; Fineman, 2000) who argue that the concept of emotional intelligence is one more example of how organizations are attempting to transform emotion into a marketable product that will enhance organizational profits—perhaps to the detriment of the authentic feelings of organizational members. Further, some scholarship has questioned popular recommendations regarding emotional intelligence as “misleading in that they seem to present scientific studies supporting their claims, while in fact failing to do so” (Zeidner, Matthews & Roberts, 2004, p. 393).


In this chapter so far, we have considered the centrality of emotion in the workplace. In the remainder of this chapter, we will look at one area of emotion that has received a great deal of attention from organizational scholars: the consideration of stress and burnout and the role of communication in causing and coping with these critical workplace emotions.

The investigation of stress in the workplace has led to a proliferation of terms used to describe various aspects of the phenomenon. In some cases, the use of these terms can be confusing. Consider, for example, the central concept of stress. Some scholars use the term to refer to aspects of the workplace that are difficult to deal with, whereas others use it to refer to the negative outcomes that accrue from these work conditions. For the purposes of this chapter, we will talk about stress as a general area of investigation and use more specific terms to refer to detailed aspects of the stress process.

The stress process can be best conceptualized as one in which some aspects of the environment—called stressors—create a strain on the individual—called burnout—which can lead to negative psychological, physiological, and organizational outcomes.

Figure 11.1 Basic Model of Stress in the Workplace

This basic model is illustrated in Figure 11.1. The following few sections flesh out this model by considering burnout, stressors, and outcomes. We start in the middle of the model by exploring the concept of burnout.


The term burnout, which was first coined by Freudenberger (1974), refers to a “wearing out” from the pressures of work. Burnout is a chronic condition that results as daily work stressors take their toll on employees. The most widely adopted conceptualization of burnout has been developed by Maslach and her colleagues in their studies of human service workers (Maslach, 1982; see also Cordes & Dougherty, 1993). Maslach sees burnout as consisting of three interrelated dimensions. The first dimension—emotional exhaustion—is really the core of the burnout phenomenon. Workers suffer from emotional exhaustion when they feel fatigued, frustrated, used up, or unable to face another day on the job. The second dimension of burnout is a lack of personal accomplishment. This aspect of the burnout phenomenon refers to workers who see themselves as failures, incapable of effectively accomplishing job requirements. The third dimension of burnout is depersonalization. This dimension is relevant only to workers who must communicate interpersonally with others (e.g., clients, patients, students) as part of the job. When burned out, such workers tend to “view other people through rust-colored glasses—developing a poor opinion of them, expecting the worst from them, and even actively disliking them” (Maslach, 1982, p. 4).

Consider, for example, Rhoda, a social worker who has been working with inner-city families for more than fifteen years. Rhoda entered her occupation as a highly motivated and idealistic worker. However, over the years, she has become burned out from the daily grind of her job. Rhoda exhibits all three dimensions of burnout outlined above. Over time, she has quit seeing her clients as individuals with special problems and now refers to them by case number. She has even been heard to call some particularly difficult clients “lowlifes.” Not surprisingly, Rhoda has trouble motivating herself to get to work every day and is physically exhausted and mentally drained by the time she gets home. When she thinks back on what she originally wanted to accomplish as a social worker, Rhoda gets very depressed, feeling that she has made little difference to anyone she serves.

Leading to this burnout syndrome are a wide array of organizational stressors, although not all stressors will lead to burnout for all individuals. Three of the most frequently identified workplace stressors are workload, role conflict, and role ambiguity (Miller, Ellis, Zook & Lyles, 1990). Workload has been linked to burnout both quantitatively—having “too much” work to do—and qualitatively—having work that is “too difficult.” Workload stress can stem from a variety of organizational sources. For example, a teacher might feel overloaded because of the number of students he teaches and the need to serve on school committees and process reams of paperwork. Role conflict and role ambiguity are also important stressors in the workplace. Role conflict involves having two or more role requirements that clash with each other, and role ambiguity exists when there is uncertainty about role requirements. Burnout can also result from stressors outside the workplace including major life events such as divorce, retirement, pregnancy, or moving that have a spillover impact on burnout experienced at work. Perhaps more important than these major life events, however, are the day-to-day hassles and the emotional strain of balancing work and home life (see, e.g., Golden, Kirby & Jorgenson, 2006). As any working parent knows, it is virtually impossible to maintain home and office as separate spheres, and stressors in one domain invariably influence the other. We consider the issue of the intersection of work and home more completely in Chapter 12.

On the other end of the model, Figure 11.1 indicates that burnout can have a variety of physiological, attitudinal, and organizational effects. Physiologically, burnout has been associated with such outcomes including coronary heart disease and high blood pressure. More research has investigated attitudinal outcomes of burnout. For example, scholarship considering a wide range of occupations and workers has linked burnout with lowered levels of job satisfaction (Miller et al., 1990). Similarly, burned-out workers often have lower levels of commitment as they become disenchanted with a stressful organization or occupation. As Maslach (1982) notes with respect to human service workers: “A psychiatric nurse becomes a carpenter, or a counselor turns to farming. They swear they will never return to their original occupation with its crush of people and emotional demands” (p. 81). Finally, the most prevalent behavioral outcome linked with burnout in the organization is turnover (e.g., Ellis & Miller, 1993).

Communication as a Cause of Burnout

There are numerous ways in which communication contributes to the experience of burnout in organizations. Several workplace characteristics have already been identified—workload, role conflict, and role ambiguity—that can serve as stressors and cause burnout. One way that communication in the workplace can influence burnout is through these variables. Communicative interactions, for example, obviously contribute substantially to an individual’s workload. Communication can also influence the experience of role conflict and role ambiguity. For example, Graen’s model of role development (Graen & Scandura, 1987) that we discussed in Chapter 7 describes the ways in which supervisor-subordinate interaction helps to define expectations as an individual learns about the job and the organization. If communication in this crucial stage of socialization is inadequate, role conflict and role ambiguity are likely to result.

Thus, communication can play a role in causing burnout through its influence on workplace stressors such as load, role conflict, and role ambiguity. These are not the only ways that communication plays a role in the burnout process, however. Indeed, communication also plays a role in creating stress through processes of emotional communication discussed earlier in this chapter. We will now consider two ways in which the emotional aspects of work contribute to stress and burnout.

Emotional Labor as a Contributor to Burnout

As discussed earlier in this chapter, emotional labor is the term used to describe jobs in which specific emotions are required as a part of the job. Workers in service jobs requiring emotional labor must act in ways prescribed by the organization—the cheerful checkout clerk, the stern prison guard, the sympathetic counselor. So, what does emotional labor have to do with burnout? Many researchers argue that they are closely linked. For example, Hochschild’s original development of the emotional labor concept suggests that workers involved in emotional labor are at serious psychological risk. It is argued that a major danger of emotional labor is the display of emotions that are not truly felt. Morris and Feldman (1996) have called this “emotional dissonance” and contend that it is the major factor leading to negative consequences such as burnout, job dissatisfaction, and turnover. Although research on the link between emotional labor and burnout is somewhat mixed, there is clearly the possibility that the display of false emotions can—in some situations—have detrimental effects on workers.

Empathy, Communication, and Burnout

A second area of emotion and burnout research has considered not the “prescribed” and “managed” emotions of emotional labor but instead the natural emotions that often emerge in human service work. Specifically, Miller, Stiff, and Ellis (1988) have explored the role of emotional communication and burnout by developing and testing a model of communication, empathy, and burnout for human service workers. They first noted that individuals often choose these occupations (e.g., health care, social work, teaching) because they are “people oriented” and feel a high degree of empathy for others. Miller and colleagues (1988) then draw a distinction between two kinds of empathy—emotional contagion and empathic concern (Stiff, Dillard, Somera, Kim & Sleight, 1988). Emotional contagion is an affective response in which an observer experiences emotions parallel to those of another person. For example, a funeral director who always feels sad when talking to grieving clients is experiencing emotional contagion. In short, emotional contagion involves “feeling with” another. In contrast, empathic concern is an affective response in which an observer has a nonparallel emotional response. For example, a counselor dealing with a hysterical client might feel concerned but not share the client’s hysteria. Thus, empathic concern involves “feeling for” another.

How do these two dimensions of empathy influence the communication of human service workers? Miller and her colleagues (1988) speculate that empathic concern should help an employee communicate effectively, whereas emotional contagion should hinder effective interaction. Their reasoning is similar to the argument offered by Maslach (1982):

Understanding someone’s problems and seeing things from his or her point of view should enhance your ability to provide good service or care. However, the vicarious experience of that person’s emotional turmoil will increase your susceptibility to emotional exhaustion. Emotional [contagion] is really a sort of weakness or vulnerability rather than a strength. The person whose feelings are easily aroused (but not necessarily easily controlled) is going to have far more difficulty in dealing with emotionally stressful situations than the person who is less excitable and more psychologically detached. (p. 70)

Miller and colleagues (1988) further hypothesize that workers who are communicatively responsive would experience less burnout and more commitment to their occupations. The model the researchers developed is presented in Figure 11.2. In a study of hospital workers, they found support for their model, ascertaining that empathic concern enhanced communicative responsiveness, whereas emotional contagion decreased responsiveness. Furthermore, they found that communicatively responsive caregivers were less likely to experience burnout. Their model has been further supported and extended by research on workers providing services for homeless clients (Miller, Birkholt, Scott & Stage, 1995), nurses (Omdahl & O’Donnell, 1999), financial planners (Miller & Koesten, 2008), and human service workers (Snyder, 2012). Emotional contagion has also been linked to burnout among teachers (Bakker & Schaufeli, 2000) and oncology care workers (LeBlanc et al., 2001).

This research provides evidence that emotional communication in the workplace can be detrimental but only under certain conditions. Specifically, when an individual in a caregiving situation feels with the client and communicates accordingly, burnout is the likely result. In contrast, a caregiver who feels for the client and communicates accordingly is unlikely to suffer the effects of burnout. This pattern led to early recommendations that physicians and other human service workers attempt to adopt a stance of detached concern, in which concern for clients can be maintained independent of strong emotional involvement (Lief & Fox, 1963). More recently, scholars have become concerned about the danger of health care workers becoming overly detached—to the detriment of clients and families (Fox, 2006; Halpern, 2001). Thus, some experts have turned to recommending that physicians can combat burnout by engaging in the more genuine empathy embodied in the processes of deep acting we considered earlier in this chapter (Larson & Yao, 2005).

Figure 11.2 Model of Empathy, Communication, and Burnout

Coping with Burnout

Thus far, we have looked at the genesis of burnout in the workplace, painting a somewhat bleak picture of organizational life. However, there are ways of coping with burnout. In this section, we first look briefly at individual and organizational strategies for handling burnout and then we expand on the role of participation in decision making and social support as communicative strategies to reduce burnout.

Individual and Organizational Coping Strategies

There are many ways an individual might react to burnout. Some of these reactions—such as excessive drinking, drug use, and absenteeism—are clearly dysfunctional. However, an individual might also cope in ways that could serve to ameliorate the experience of burnout and its negative outcomes. For example, some scholars have pointed to different types of coping for dealing with life stress and organizational stress (Folkman, Lazarus, Gruen & DeLongis, 1986). Three types of coping have been identified. Problem-centered coping involves dealing directly with the causes of burnout. Appraisal-centered coping involves changing the way one thinks about the stressful situation. Emotion-centered coping involves dealing with the negative affective outcomes of burnout.

Consider Peter, an engineer who feels overwhelmed by the amount of work he must accomplish. His job leaves him no time for his family, and he is under constant pressure from his supervisor to do more and more on the job. There are several ways Peter could cope with this situation. He might employ emotion-centered coping by using relaxation techniques designed to release job-related tension. Or he might use appraisal-centered coping by convincing himself that he needs to work hard in order to advance in the company and that short-term family sacrifices are necessary for long-term security. Or he might use problem-centered coping by delegating some of his responsibilities, talking to his supervisor about work reduction, or using time-management techniques. These strategies would probably vary in their effectiveness in reducing Peter’s stress. However, it is likely that problem-centered coping will generate the most enduring and satisfying reduction in job-related burnout.

The organization can also play a role in reducing burnout (see Pines, Aronson & Kafry, 1981). Socialization programs can be designed to enhance the clarity of employee role definitions. Workload can be carefully monitored and controlled. Workers involved in high-stress or emotional occupations can be provided “timeouts” during the workday or occasional sabbaticals to recharge. The conflict between home and work can be acknowledged through the provision of flextime and onsite day care. All these organizational strategies can serve to eliminate the causes of burnout or lessen its negative effects. Perhaps the most important ways of coping with burnout, however, arise through communicative interactions. Let’s look at two important communicative ways of dealing with burnout: participation in decision making and social support.

Communicative Coping: Participation in Decision Making

A first communicative strategy for coping with workplace burnout is participation in decision making (PDM). We have already looked extensively at the participation process in Chapter 8. Specifically, we noted that PDM can improve both worker satisfaction and productivity through enhanced information flow (cognitive model) and the satisfaction of workers’ higher-order needs (attitudinal model). Research has also indicated that PDM can decrease burnout in the workplace. Miller and colleagues (1990) found that perceived participation reduced burnout in a sample of hospital employees. Ray and Miller (1991) reached similar conclusions in their study of elementary school teachers. In an experimental study, Jackson (1983) found that employees who had an opportunity to participate in decisions experienced lower levels of strain and fewer intentions to leave their jobs.

Why should PDM work to reduce job-related burnout? Several explanations are feasible. First, it is possible that PDM serves to reduce two of the workplace stressors we talked about earlier in this chapter—role conflict and role ambiguity. As Jackson (1983) notes, PDM should lead to “more accurate knowledge of (a) the formal and informal expectations held by others for the worker, and (b) the formal and informal policies and procedures of the organization, as well as the discrepancies between the two” (p. 6). In addition to this effect on role definition, it is also possible that employees who participate feel more valued by the organization and feel a greater sense of influence and control in the workplace.

Communicative Coping: Social Support

A second communicative avenue for coping with workplace stress and burnout is social support. Voluminous research exists on social support as a means of protecting individuals from the major and minor stresses of life (see Albrecht, Burleson & Goldsmith, 1995, for a review). In this section, we focus on the role of social support as a means of coping with job-related stress and burnout by considering the functions social support can play, the sources of social support for reducing strain in the workplace, and the mechanisms through which social support reduces burnout. It should be noted, however, that social support is not a panacea and that not everyone in the workplace has the communicative competence to provide effective support (Wright, Banas, Bessarabova & Bernard, 2010).

A wide variety of typologies have been proposed to categorize social support (see, e.g., House, 1981). Most typologies involve three major functions of social support:

  • Emotional support involves letting another person know that they are loved and cared for. Emotional support might involve a message that boosts another’s self-esteem (“I know you’re bright enough to do well on the test”) or a message that indicates unconditional regard (“You know I’ll be proud of you no matter what you do”). Or emotional support might involve the provision of a shoulder to cry on or a friend to gripe to (“You can always come to me when you have problems”).
  • Informational support involves the provision of facts and advice to help an individual cope. Several types of informational support could be helpful in the workplace. First, information might serve to decrease job-related stressors such as role conflict and workload (e.g., clarifying a job description or providing strategies for time management). Second, informational support might provide suggestions for dealing with the strain of burnout (e.g., suggesting a good health club for exercise).
  • Instrumental support involves physical or material assistance that helps an individual cope with stress and strain. For example, a coworker might pitch in to help someone finish a project when that person is fighting a tight deadline. A supervisor might send an employee to a management seminar for extra job-related training. One’s spouse might cook dinner. In short, instrumental support involves providing the resources and labor employees need to cope with workplace burnout.

 Case in Point: Stretched Thin in the Emergency Room

As the scholarship discussed in this chapter makes clear, workers in human service careers, such as health care, face emotionally burdensome jobs. These workers interact with the sick and their families, dealing with stressed-out people during the most troubling times of their lives. Obviously, this is never an easy task, and it can be the source of both great rewards and intense burnout. However, the struggles of this kind of work become increasingly difficult when the load of health care workers increases.

Paul Duke (2004) makes this argument with regard to workers in his career: emergency room nursing. Duke points out that the load of emergency room (ER) nurses has increased substantially in recent years. This increase can be traced to a variety of sources: fewer qualified nurses, an aging population, more underinsured people using the ER as their first-line source of health care. For all these reasons, ER nurses now must deal with many more patients than in the past, and those patients often have increasingly serious needs. Duke reports that he, like many nurses, is pulled apart emotionally by the stress. He says, “After all this you must wonder why I don’t quit. The truth is, I love nursing. It’s what I am good at. I love the challenge of not knowing what will come crashing through the doors. Emergency-room nurses rise to the occasion. But we are being steam-rolled, stretched thin and beaten down, and the best of us are frustrated” (p. 12).

In this emotional struggle between the love of nursing and the frustration of increasing patient loads, we can only hope that the love of nursing continues to win out or that we find a way to cope with the pressures of an increasingly congested health care system.

A variety of people can provide individuals the support they need to cope with burnout. The three most common sources are supervisors, coworkers, and friends and family:

  • Support from supervisors is most likely to come in the form of instrumental and informational support. A supervisor has the knowledge to provide informational support and the access to resources to provide instrumental support. For example, a supervisor can reduce role ambiguity by sitting down with an employee and clarifying job expectations (informational support). A supervisor could also reduce workload by informing management of the need for additional workers (instrumental support).
  • Support from coworkers is most likely to come in the form of informational and emotional support. Coworkers (especially long-term employees) can often provide valuable information about how to deal with organizational stressors. Coworkers are also crucial as sources of emotional support because they have a clear understanding of the workplace context. Ray (1987) quotes a day care center worker on this topic: “When I try to tell my husband or friends what it’s like at work, to deal with 15 screaming, fighting, attention-demanding kids for 8 hours straight, they don’t really understand. The only people who really feel like I do are the people I work with” (p. 174). Recent research points to the possible dangers of type of support, however, as interaction with others in the workplace can sometimes draw attention to just how stressful the workplace can be (Beehr, Bowling & Bennett, 2010).
  • Support from friends and family will typically come in the form of emotional and instrumental support. Friends and family know an individual well enough to provide esteem support and a shoulder to lean on. Friends and family can also provide instrumental support by freeing an individual from home responsibilities. For example, a woman might take charge of the children for an evening to allow her husband to put in some extra time catching up with an office project.


In this chapter, we have looked at an important emerging area of scholarship in organizational communication: the consideration of emotion in the workplace. We first looked at several areas of scholarship that emphasize the role of emotion in organizations. These include the consideration of emotional labor, the consideration of emotion in human service occupations, and the investigation of emotion in ongoing organizational relationships. We then turned to a consideration of a specific area of workplace emotion and communication: research on stress, burnout, and social support. We first looked at the burnout syndrome and then at workplace antecedents and outcomes of burnout and the role of communication in both causing and helping individuals cope with burnout.

As in previous chapters, it is instructive to look at our topic in the light of the various approaches to organizational communication (see Table 11.2). The classical approach to organizational communication largely ignores emotion in general and burnout in particular. Indeed, a burned-out employee is simply a cog in the machine that must be replaced. Emotion has similarly been ignored by many scholars in the human relations, human resources, and systems approaches. Although human relations theorists consider feelings such as job satisfaction and all these theorists would see burnout as a problem to be solved, emotion takes a backseat in the work of all these approaches.

Much of the emerging work on emotion in organizations has developed from cultural and feminist approaches to organizational scholarship. For example, Meyerson (1994, 1998) has contrasted the cultures of two health care settings with regard to stress and burnout. Her analysis points to differences in organizational culture (e.g., one culture saw burnout as a “disease,” whereas the other saw it as a natural outcome of social work) that highlighted emotional aspects of organizational culture and the power of more feminine modes of organizing. Relatedly, some researchers have argued that the performance of emotional labor is a “gendered” process (e.g., Hall, 1993). Finally, in the area of social support, Kirby (2006) has argued that many organizational programs and policies now take on the support tasks that were once the purview of family and friends. This development is in line with critical scholarship in pointing to the increasing ways in which organizations maintain control over ever-increasing areas of our lives.