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Amber N. Sechelski and Chelsea V. Story, Sam Houston State University

Chelsea Story.jpgAmber Sechelski.jpgSeveral researchers have agreed that academic advisors’ formation of genuine and caring relationships with college students can lead to more effective advising interactions (Allen, Smith, & Muehleck, 2014; Barbuto, Story, Fritz, & Schinstock, 2011; Ellis, 2014; Paul & Fitzpatrick, 2015; Vianden & Barlow, 2015), but little attention has been paid to the emotional labor that advisors might undertake in forming such relationships.  Hochschild (2012), who coined the term in 1983, defined such labor as the work of managing one’s emotions in a way that will produce a particular attitude or outlook in others; performance of emotional labor can include repressing emotions that are genuinely felt, as well as expressing faked (in surface acting) or conjured (in deep acting) emotions congruent with organizational expectations.  For instance, an academic advisor who assists students in academic jeopardy might have to suppress frustration with students who refuse to take advantage of academic resources and instead either display concern (while feeling frustration) or produce concern (through concerted effort to evoke the feeling).

Emotional labor can result in positive outcomes for organizations (Meier, Mastracci, & Wilson, 2006), in part because such laboring represents “a way of promoting a sense of choice while gaining compliance” (Sass, 2000, p. 351).  However, emotional labor might not be recognized as worthy of monetary reward (Bhave & Glomb, 2009), an issue Hochschild (2012) documented.  With regard to the field of academic advising, the emotional labor inherent in implementing researchers’ suggestions—such as to promote advising as an ongoing teaching and learning process (Allen et al., 2014) or to develop servant leader behaviors (e.g., putting students’ needs first; Paul & Fitzpatrick, 2015)—often goes unacknowledged, which is consistent with Hochschild’s (2012) description of such labor as “a dimension of work that is seldom recognized, rarely honored, and almost never taken into account by employers as a source of on-the-job stress” (p. 153).

Performing Emotional Labor

Organizations Outside of Higher Education. A review of the literature pertaining to organizations outside of higher education revealed that surface acting is particularly problematic.  Surface acting was associated with emotional exhaustion on the part of its performers (Bayram, Aytac, & Dursun, 2012; Erickson & Ritter, 2001; Goodwin, Groth, & Frenkel, 2011; Karatepe, 2011; Kenworthy, Fay, Frame, & Petree, 2014; Wagner, Barnes, & Scott, 2014; Zhan, Wang, & Shi, 2016), perhaps because customers tended to react negatively to responses that seemed designed to manipulate their emotions (Little, Kluemper, Nelson, & Ward, 2013; Zhan et al., 2016).  Researchers who studied surface acting also discovered that its performance led to depersonalization of employees (Bayram et al., 2012) and customers (Brotheridge & Grandey, 2002) and that surface acting was related both to employees’ increased degree of intent to leave their organizations (Cho & Song, 2017; Shanock et al., 2013) and increased instances of leaving (Goodwin et al., 2011).  The performance of surface acting was also associated with a decreased sense of work accomplishment (Brotheridge & Grandey, 2002) and decreased job satisfaction (Adil, Kamal, & Atta, 2013), as well as with myriad effects on home life.  Some employees carried the habit of expressing emotions not genuinely felt home (Sanz-Vergel, Rodríguez-Muñoz, Bakker, & Demerouti, 2012), and surface acting performed at home was linked to a decreased affect toward family life (Yanchus, Eby, Lance, & Drollinger, 2010). The performance of surface acting was also related to conflict at home, as well as to insomnia (Wagner et al., 2014).

The effects individuals experienced as a result of surface acting were worsened by pre-existing psychological strain (van Gelderen, Heuven, van Veldhoven, Zeelenberg, & Croon, 2007), as well as either worsened or mitigated by personality traits (Diefendorff, Croyle, & Gosserand, 2005; Kruml & Geddes, 2000; Wharton, 1993) and personal beliefs (Pugh, Groth, & Hennig-Thurau, 2011).  The performance of surface acting and its effects tended to decrease with employees’ work experience (Hur, Moon, & Han, 2014), perhaps because older workers are typically more skilled at controlling emotion (Cho, Rutherford, & Park, 2013; Kruml & Geddes, 2000).  The performance of surface acting and its effects also tended to decrease if employees perceived a high level of organizational support (Karatepe, 2011; Mishra, 2014) or organizational trust (Cho & Song, 2017) or if they possessed a strong ability to recognize emotion (Bechtoldt, Rohrmann, De Pater, & Beersma, 2011).

The review of the literature pertaining to organizations outside of higher education revealed that deep acting is less problematic than surface acting and might even be beneficial in some cases.  Deep acting was not as closely related to emotional exhaustion, perhaps because customers tended to react positively to such emotional displays (Zhan et al., 2016), and the performance of deep acting increased employees’ sense of work accomplishment (Brotheridge & Grandey, 2002).  However, deep acting was related to lower levels of work engagement in the presence of low emotion recognition (Bechtoldt et al., 2011) and to the highest levels of burnout and lowest levels of job satisfaction when performed in tandem with surface acting (Cheung & Lun, 2015).

Faculty in Higher Education.  Regarding literature specific to higher education, faculty performance of emotional labor was perceived as positive for institutional outcomes but often went unrewarded (Constanti & Gibbs, 2004).  Faculty without tenure engaged in more emotional labor with students than tenured faculty, a circumstance that decreased for males upon earning tenure (Tunguz, 2016).  Younger and less experienced instructors engaged in more emotional labor than older and more experienced instructors (Berry & Cassidy, 2013), and faculty in female-dominated disciplines engaged in more emotional labor than faculty in male-dominated disciplines (Bagilhole & Goode, 1998).  Faculty who became administrators also continued to engage in emotional labor (Gonzales & Rincones, 2013).

Concerning the types of emotional labor performed by faculty, they engaged in deep acting more than surface acting (Ozturk, Bahcecik, Ozcelik, & Kemer, 2015; Zhang & Zhu, 2008) or authenticity (Zhang & Zhu, 2008).  Related, faculty engaged in deep acting more within their own culture (Menon & Narayanan, 2015).  Similar to the findings of researchers who studied emotional labor within other organizations, researchers who focused their efforts within higher education discovered that surface acting increased burnout and decreased job satisfaction (Zhang & Zhu, 2008), as well as decreased teaching effectiveness (Gaan, 2012).  Conversely, deep acting decreased burnout and increased job satisfaction (Zhang & Zhu, 2008).  Interestingly, researchers who studied the performance of emotional labor in higher education noted that faculty might be in danger of losing their authentic selves during the tenure period, which might result in decreased intrinsic motivation (Lechuga, 2012).  Researchers also determined that the display of authentic emotions might be more important predictors of job affect than faked or conjured emotions (Mahoney, Buboltz, Buckner, & Doverspike, 2011).

Academic Advisors in Higher Education.  Researchers who mentioned specifically the emotional labor undertaken by academic advisors were scant to nonexistent; however, a group of paralegals in one emotional labor study indicated the following:

Factors that contributed to their assessment of their interaction with clients as stressful, and therefore required emotional labor, typically centered on three recurring themes: the emotional states of the clients with whom they dealt; the demanding behavior of the clients that stemmed, in large part, from their lack of understanding of legal procedures; and their own roles as gatekeepers or what one male paralegal referred to as “the first line of defense.” (Lively, 2002, p. 207)

Advisors will more than likely recognize an eerie similarity between the assertions of these paralegals, made approximately fifteen years ago, and assertions they themselves might make about their own roles today: Advisors are often the first line of defense for students who need assistance navigating higher education procedures, students who are frustrated by a system that they do not understand.

Implications for Academic Advisors

Overall, the literature suggested that emotional exhaustion could be a prevalent threat to those working in the field of advising, which begs the following question: How can job burnout be avoided when the fundamentals of the job seem to necessitate frequent and intense emotional labor?  

Despite the fact that emotional labor is often deeply embedded in advisors’ relationships with students, it quite simply does not have to be.  Emotional labor is not a widespread job requirement in advising positions, but merely an assumed implication for best practice.  Therefore, raising awareness of emotional labor as a key component of job burnout among advisors might be the first step to reducing its performance within the profession, especially because the extent to which an advisor emotionally labors is a choice.

It is imperative that advisors remember that there is no reward for organizational commitment and/or service to an institution at the expense of an individual’s care for him or herself; moreover, self-negating choices made in the name of a student and/or the institution are decisions that are lost on high-impact practice for supporting student success.  Professional wellness among advisors is foundational to providing optimum support to students, which means advisors must guard against emotional exhaustion as it is the antithesis of wellness.  One means of guarding against burnout is through the protection of one’s schedule.  Although the demands on an advisor’s time are high, scheduling breaks throughout the day to eat, step away from the office, or engage in any activity that serves to restore the energy that is being depleted by the performance of job duties can make the difference between feeling exhausted at the day’s end or not.  In the same way that advisors recommend that students take breaks regularly while reading a textbook to maximize alertness and retention of the material, so too should an advisor schedule breaks throughout the work day to enhance his or her performance on the job and overall wellbeing.

In addition to prioritizing self-care, practicing mindfulness of emotional labor can enable the minimization of laboring in ways that lead to emotional exhaustion.  Furthermore, prioritizing authenticity during student interactions can aid in the prevention of alternating between surface and deep acting.  Ultimately, developing an internal process for the regulation of emotional labor could serve as an emotional exhaustion cushion if not prevent the condition of burnout altogether.  Advisors who manage to center their decision-making on the promotion of health and wellness (e.g., prioritizing a nutrient-dense diet, creating an exercise routine, and developing healthy sleep habits) can perhaps thwart some of the effects of the emotional labor that is so ingrained in advising practice because it shifts the focus from managing the student’s emotions for a desired outcome to managing one’s own for the purpose of improving stamina and student service.  Further research on the effects of emotional labor in the field of advising is needed, which will hopefully yield a cultural shift in higher education over time that promotes the recognition of and compensation for emotional labor in positions of student support service.  Perhaps if advisors deepen their comprehension of subject matter relating to emotional labor, new meaning will be given to work that might otherwise be developing a sense of inconsequentiality.

Amber N. Sechelski
Former Assistant Director of Academic Support Programs
Student Advising and Mentoring Center
Sam Houston State University
[email protected]

Chelsea V. Story
Senior Academic Advisor
Student Advising and Mentoring Center
Sam Houston State University
[email protected]


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Cite this article using APA style as: Sechelski, A.N., & Story, C.V. (2018, June). So this is why I’m exhausted: Emotional labor explained. Academic Advising Today, 41(2). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2018 June 41:2


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