Working in an Emotionally
Demanding Role

Exhibiting "Grace Under Pressure"

Working in an Emotionally Demanding Role - Exhibiting

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Prevent stress from stacking up, by managing your mood in an emotionally demanding role.

Dan works as a customer service manager for a global organization. Although he likes his job, he often struggles to cope with the emotional demands that go along with it.

For example, Dan has to demonstrate certain behaviors, and follow specific protocols, when talking with clients. He has to use a script when customers make complaints over the phone, and he needs to take a sympathetic role when people are upset. He also has to avoid showing negative emotions, such as anger or frustration, when he's dealing with unreasonable customers.

Over time, Dan has increasingly felt empty, emotionally drained, and disengaged from his work. He arrives home each day feeling exhausted, and he has little emotional energy left for his family. He started his career believing that he could make a difference, but he's now considering moving to a different position.

Emotionally demanding roles like Dan's are more common than you might think, and, if you work in a job like this, you might have experienced some of these issues. Not only are these types of roles challenging, they can threaten your health and well-being.

In this article, we'll look at what you need to know and do to work successfully in an emotionally demanding role.

What Is an Emotionally Demanding Role?

Emotionally demanding roles typically require face-to-face or voice-to-voice interaction with other people. In them, you may be expected to create an emotional response in someone else. You're also expected to display positive emotions, and suppress your own, true feelings – this is known as emotional labor.

For example, waiting staff must appear cheerful and accommodating to diners. Health professionals must be caring and attentive to patients, while at times hiding emotions such as frustration, sadness, or anxiety. Customer service representatives must stay cool, sympathetic, and professional with upset customers.

Although emotional labor is usually associated with customer service or human service roles, the reality is that any job can be emotionally demanding.

For instance, many professionals strive to be "team players," meaning that they must suppress negative emotions, present a positive outlook, and work closely with colleagues that they may not like. Some organizations might have "display rules," where they expect employees to exhibit certain emotions, behaviors, or body language while they're at work.

The role of a manager is also emotionally demanding. Many care deeply about their teams, and know that they have to demonstrate a positive and optimistic attitude, even when they don't feel this way. They're often expected to suppress feelings such as frustration, anger, uncertainty, stress, or disappointment to preserve the group's morale.


How do you feel after an emotionally demanding day? You probably feel drained, both physically and mentally. You might experience dissatisfaction with your job, an inability to think creatively or focus, as well as feelings such as irritability, frustration, or depression. When you're in a role that strains your emotions regularly, you might also feel disengaged and distant from family and friends.

One study found that professionals working in emotionally demanding roles are more likely to suffer from burnout. Another report found that emotionally demanding jobs, coupled with other factors such as conflict, low autonomy, and job insecurity, can lead to psychological distress.

All of this can have a negative effect on your health and well-being, which is why it's important to learn how to manage emotional demands.

Working Effectively in an Emotionally Demanding Role

Use the strategies below to work more effectively, and to avoid burnout in an emotionally demanding role.

Take Frequent Breaks

Regular breaks are important when you're in an emotionally demanding role. You need time and space to be yourself, even if it's only for a few minutes. Breaks are especially useful after tense conversations or situations.

Light exercise helps you cope with emotional demands. When you're feeling stressed or exhausted, take a stroll outside, or spend a few minutes walking around the office taking deep, relaxing breaths.

You can also practice meditation at work. This can alleviate stress because it calms both your body and mind. Even sitting quietly for five minutes can help you relax.

Throughout the day, use physical relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or progressive muscular relaxation, to relieve tension. These techniques take only a few seconds, and you can use them at your desk.

Use Empathy

One of the best ways to cope in an emotionally demanding role is to use empathy, so that you can see problems from other people's perspectives.

It isn't always easy to show empathy, especially when you're facing unhappy customers or disillusioned team members. But when you're able to see through their negative emotions, and understand why they're feeling the way that they are, you can connect with them on a deeper level. This connection allows you to respond in a way that meets their needs.

This also preserves your emotional resources. When you understand why people are "being difficult", you don't have to use your own emotions to protect yourself or to try to change their behavior. And when you reach a successful conclusion, you can finish the interaction feeling energized, rather than drained.

Consider Creating a "Climate of Authenticity"

One study found that professionals working in emotionally demanding roles can alleviate stress and emotional burnout by creating a "climate of authenticity." This happens when workers "encourage and support authentic emotional expressions with group members."

Put simply, in a (controlled) climate of authenticity, you're allowed to show your true emotions with colleagues, away from customers and managers. You also encourage colleagues to express their true emotions with you.

In this way, everyone feels free to be themselves, and to communicate their emotions (both positive and negative). This alleviates the tension that can occur when people don't show their true feelings. It also lets you replenish lost emotional resources, and go back to your role with renewed energy and optimism.

To create a climate of authenticity, start by openly sharing your emotions and personal stories with a colleague that you know, like and trust. Explain the importance of being authentic, especially on demanding days. Then encourage your colleague to share her experiences with you. Use active listening skills while she is talking, and don't focus on "fixing" her problem; she might only need you to listen. As you become comfortable sharing your true emotions, consider widening your circle to include others on your team.

Continue to encourage your colleagues to share their emotions when appropriate. This support system will help you take a break from the emotional demands of your role.

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Tip 1:

Remember that there's a fine balance here. Regularly sharing emotions such as despair, anger, or frustration can bring down the entire group's mood and morale, and it can lead team members to develop a lack of respect for clients. Some team members may also see this as unprofessional.

Try setting a time limit for everyone; for example, each person gets two minutes to vent his or her frustrations. After that, the conversation should focus on something positive and constructive.

Tip 2:

Make sure that customers never see or hear this venting.

Strengthen Coping Skills

There are several further skills that you can use to cope in an emotionally demanding role.

First, work on developing your emotional intelligence. High emotional intelligence helps you distance yourself from emotional demands, and gives you an objective perspective on your situation.

As part of this, learn how to manage your emotions at work. To do this, stop yourself mentally when you start to feel your emotions getting the better of you. Look at the situation, and ask yourself why you're feeling this way. Try to think of one good thing about the situation – even a small positive thought can shift your attitude, and reframe the situation.

Sometimes, revisiting the deeper meaning in your work can help you cope with your role's demands. When you rediscover the meaning in your work, you might find that it's easier to engage with others and fulfill this purpose every day.

Some people use anger to cope with emotional demands. If you do, learn how to use anger management strategies to harness angry energy and turn it into something positive. For example, you can find humor in almost any situation. Learn to laugh at yourself instead of getting angry.

Last, practice positive thinking throughout the day. This can shift your attitude to one of optimism, and it can increase your self-confidence. This can be particularly useful when you're interacting with others who are being negative. Instead of focusing on their negativity or stress, think about how you will bring the situation to a positive conclusion.

Key Points

In an emotionally demanding role, you often have to exhibit certain positive behaviors and repress your emotions. You may also be expected to create an emotional response in someone else.

Emotional demands can cause disengagement, depression, and burnout if you don't handle them effectively. To cope in an emotionally demanding role, work on developing empathy, think positively, and take frequent breaks to rest and recharge.

Also, create a climate of authenticity by sharing your emotions with colleagues, and by encouraging them to do the same.