The High Cost of Emotional Labor


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A definite link exists between Employee Engagement and Customer Experience. In spite of this, many organizations choose to keep their Employee Engagement programs and their Customer Engagement programs separate. However, linking the two areas is key to having success in both.

Aetna made headlines when they gave their lowest-paid workers a raise to $16/hr. Who are these lowest paid workers? They are the call center employees, or, in other words, some of the most (if not the most) Customer-facing employees. And these employees aren’t facing happy Customers either. One of the employees described how many of the callers they talk to are angry and the calls can be challenging. Their job is to help calm Customers down, and then help them better understand their insurance policy.

However, the challenges of their job weren’t the only thing that caused these stresses for employees in a day. Personal challenges affect how employees feel at work. An example of these personal challenges can be not making the bills or needing help to feed their families. The executive team at Aetna discovered that many of their call center employees were in public assistance programs, including Medicaid and food stamps.

Aetna’s CEO Mark Bertolini believes the investment in his employees will improve their state of mind at work, and because of that, improve their productivity levels. He made the move “to make sure that they were bringing their best selves to work every day.” While he can’t say for sure if it will increase profits, he felt it was the right thing to do. Bertolini believes it is important to do this, to help restore the middle class by paying employees a fair wage. In fact, he sends packets to other CEOs to encourage them to do the same thing with their compensation plans.

Investing In Employees Helps Prevent Emotional Burnout

So, why is raising wages for employees key to creating a good Customer Experience? It comes down to emotional labor. In a service-based job like the one where these call center workers are employed, they are required to manage their own emotions to project a certain image on behalf of the company, a concept known as emotional labor. In many ways, the company culture and emotional labor expectations dictate how they want their employees “to feel” while they are at work.

You know as well as I do if you have stress at home, it translates over to work. In the case of a low-wage earning employee on public assistance because he or she has medical bills or can’t feed the family, it’s safe to say the employee suffered significant emotional distractions at work. When employees are distracted, they can’t manage their emotions as well. It makes it significantly harder to maintain the emotional management required for the job.

I always say that happy Employees make happy Customers. This is not just a quaint slogan; it’s a fact. When an employee is friendly and smiling, it’s contagious. It spreads, like a happy virus and it infects Customers.

However, it takes energy on behalf of the employee to sustain the happy demeanor they display to Customers. And if they don’t have the resources to maintain it or time to recover, they will burn out over time, suffering from emotional exhaustion.

The Experience Economy Requires a New Way of Thinking

We are living in the Experience Economy today. What that means is that Customers want the companies they do business with to make it worth their while, to give them more value and a better experience than the past. It is not enough to have a great product, price, and placement. You now must have a great experience to go with that product. And who provides that experience? The employees do.

Therefore, linking Employee Engagement and Customer Experience is key to getting the Experience you want for your Customers. In other words, it’s not enough to win the Customers over; you need to win your employees over, also. Investing in your employees, giving them a foundation for a positive emotional state at work is a basic element of creating that positive emotional experience for Customers. Ignore the employees’ emotional needs, and they will ignore the Experience expectations you need them to deliver.

How can you invest in your employees today?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Colin Shaw
Colin is an original pioneer of Customer Experience. LinkedIn has recognized Colin as one of the ‘World's Top 150 Business Influencers’ Colin is an official LinkedIn "Top Voice", with over 280,000 followers & 80,000 subscribed to his newsletter 'Why Customers Buy'. Colin's consulting company Beyond Philosophy, was recognized by the Financial Times as ‘one of the leading consultancies’. Colin is the co-host of the highly successful Intuitive Customer podcast, which is rated in the top 2% of podcasts.


  1. Hi Colin

    In a time of increasing business profitability but decreasing wages for those at the bottom of the employment pyramid, increasing wages is a courageous moral choice.

    However, as a recent op ed on ‘Destination Unknown’ in The Economist points out, increasing wages too far, too fast may have unintended longer-term consequences ranging from decreasing business profitability, through reducing full-time staff employment, ultimately, to replacing staff with automated technologies. It is only a matter of time until Turing-compliant technologies are able to replace call-centre staff for many customer enquiries.

    For most businesses, the choice whether to pay employees more and if so, how much more should be a based on a carefully calculated optimum wage rather than one driven by libertarian morals.

    Graham Hill

    Further Reading:

    The Economist
    ‘Destination Unknown’


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