In the past couple of decades, there has been a shift away from an economy dominated by industrialization to an economy that is heavily reliant upon the service sector. This can be easily seen in Europe, with approximately 70 per cent of the workforce consisting of service workers, and more specifically 80 per cent in Sweden, an increase of 10 per cent in the last 20 years [1
]. The now dominant service sector poses risks to workers in the form of emotional demands as a result of the interpersonal nature underpinning this line of work [2
]. This has stimulated a wave of interest in the literature on the importance of emotional demands. However, despite the wealth of research into the health eroding consequences of emotional demands [4
], as well as the de-motivational consequences under conditions of low resources [5
], there is still limited understanding surrounding emotional demands in the workplace. Emotional demands have been understood as those aspects of a job that require sustained emotional effort due to interactions with clients [12
]. However, this definition fails to consider interactions with fellow employees that can also require sustained emotional effort. As a result, the literature has yet to recognise the source of the emotional demands, and the potential differing impact of the different sources (e.g., clients and work relations). Therefore, the aim of the current study is to explore the impact of emotional demands from clients/patients/customers and emotional demands from work relations (e.g., colleagues, supervisors, and employees) onto workers’ exhaustion and engagement.
1.1. Consequences of Emotional Job Demands
With the crucial role the service sector, and more specifically service activities, is playing in the current economic climate, there is a recognition these activities go hand in hand with high emotional demands. For example, evidence indicates that occupations largely underpinned by end-user (e.g., clients, patients, or customers) interactions are exposed to the highest levels of emotional demands [3
]. Emotional demands in this context are thought to stem from exposure to client suffering [9
], client initiated violence [15
], or high demands and expectations from clients [17
]. These experiences and requirements can negatively impact the health and wellbeing of the service sector workers. Studies demonstrate that emotional demands are at least as important, or more important, than psychological-quantitative demands (e.g., workload) in terms of their impact on employee well-being in service work [9
A large body of empirical evidence has shown that emotional job demands are related to a variety of poor health symptoms, particularly burnout/emotional exhaustion, e.g., [5
], for a review). Emotional job demands have also been linked to other measures of poor health, such as depression [2
], psychological distress [4
], anxiety [19
], and long-term sickness absence [6
This relationship between emotional demands and employee poor health may be understood through the lens of the health erosion pathway of the job demands-resources model [20
]. In accordance with the health erosion pathway, demanding conditions require effort and energy investment that may drain employees’ physical and psychological resources and lead to psychological strain (e.g., burnout). As such, exposure to high levels of emotional demands in the workplace is leading to a variety of detrimental health conditions.
Notwithstanding the large amount of support for a detrimental impact of emotional demands onto workers’ health, there are inconsistencies in the research. For example, there is evidence to indicate that emotional demands do not play a role in workers’ experience of health symptoms [21
]. However, it should be noted that this evidence on the lack of association between emotional demands and health is largely outdated, as the majority of this research was conducted over 20 years ago, which calls into question the relevance of the findings to workers these days. Notwithstanding the potential lack of relevance, it does call into question the circumstances under which emotional demands have a detrimental impact on health.
Consistent with the findings from emotional demands to workers’ health and wellbeing, the association between emotional demands and organizational and individual work-related wellbeing outcomes is not clear cut. While emotional demands directly and negatively impact upon work-related wellbeing, such as low engagement and low job satisfaction [24
], emotional demands do not occur in isolation. Within the working environment, workers also have access to resources. When workers have access to high levels of individual and/or job-related resources, high levels of emotional demands correspond positively with engagement [11
], organizational connectedness [27
], employee creativity, and work motivation [5
]. That is, under emotionally demanding conditions workers notice and/or sufficiently utilize the motivational psychosocial factors in the workplace, job resources, to promote beneficial outcomes for both themselves and the organization.
1.2. Job Resources and Emotional Demands
As previously established, the beneficial link between job demands (e.g., emotional demands) and motivational outcomes (e.g., work engagement), often is only present under conditions of high job resources [11
]. Job resources can also be beneficial in reducing the detrimental impact of job demands upon workers’ health [5
In the extant literature, the focus has near exclusively targeted personal resources, such as self-efficacy or optimism, or task-level resources, such as autonomy or feedback. In the current research we will incorporate an organizational level resource, psychosocial safety climate, which extends beyond the narrow focus of a singular personal or task-level resource, to incorporate a multi-faceted resource that can address the multiple needs of the worker.
1.3. Source of Emotional Demands
The findings described above have largely investigated emotional demands that arise from interactions with end-users (e.g., clients and patients), or have been unspecified in terms of the source of the emotional demands. However, service employees have different work-related roles both as external service providers (interacting with clients) and as members of the organization (interacting with co-workers; [37
]). As such, it seems plausible that these different relational contexts can be distinct sources of emotional demands. Although some studies have suggested that emotional demands in service workers can also arise from work relations [38
], most of the research on emotional demands has focused on clients’ relations and therefore knowledge of different sources of emotional demands at work remains largely unexplored. Moreover, some evidence suggests this may also be the case for human service managers, for which problems related to employee groups or individuals, characterized by conflicts, distrust, disciplinary actions, for example, can further add to the emotional demands of the job [39
]. However, research on potential differences in emotional demands between service workers and service managers is largely missing.
The aim of this study is to explore whether different sources of emotional demands at work relate differently to employees’ psychological ill-health and motivation. As the literature shows, emotional demands are an inevitable feature in service work. Furthermore, studies show that emotional demands contribute to psychological strain, but at the same time may have a positive impact on work-related outcomes such as work engagement, especially under conditions with high resources. However, studies have largely investigated emotional demands that arise from interactions with end-users (e.g., clients and patients), or have been unspecified in terms of the source of the emotional demands. The present study uses a new measure of emotional demands that differentiates between sources of emotional demands at work, namely clients (“client” is used here and throughout the paper to refer to any person who interacts with an employee, for example, patients, customers, passengers, guest, etc.) and other employees (superiors, subordinates, and colleagues). Regarding outcomes, we chose to focus on emotional exhaustion based on the match hypotheses of the demand induced strain compensation model [12
], according to which demands (e.g., emotional) are likely to have the greatest impact on outcomes in the same domain (e.g., emotional exhaustion). Furthermore, we focus on work engagement as a measure of work-related well-being. Work engagement can be defined as an affective-motivational state, which is characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption with one’s job [40
As suggested by previous literature, the organizational context often has an impact on work conditions (e.g., emotional demands) and on psychological health outcomes. Therefore, interactions will be analyzed where psychosocial safety climate will be a moderating variable of the relations between emotional demands and the outcomes.
The purpose of the present study was to explore the association between emotional demands from different relational sources at work and emotional exhaustion and engagement in service workers. Although the relation between emotional demands and indicators of psychological strain and other job-related outcomes has been broadly investigated, e.g., [14
], previous studies largely focused on emotional demands arising from interactions with end-users (e.g., clients and patients), or have been unspecified in terms of the source of the emotional demands.
Consistent with previous research, it was found that high emotional demands led to increased symptoms of emotional exhaustion [45
]. Specifically, it was found that, among employees, emotional demands from both clients and especially from work relations contributed to feelings of emotional exhaustion. Emotional demands erode workers’ emotional health because the increased effort associated with the appraisal of demands and coping with them results in strain (e.g., anxiety and fatigue), which over time can lead to employees feeling exhausted and worn out.
This link between emotional demands from “both” work relations and clients onto emotional exhaustion was not found for managers. For managers with staff responsibility, only emotional demands from relations with clients significantly predicted emotional exhaustion, while for managers without staff responsibility only emotional demands from work relations predicted emotional exhaustion. Some previous studies also failed to find an association between emotional demands and psychological strain, e.g., [21
]. For example, in a sample of human resource professionals, the interpersonal demands of frequency, duration, and intensity of contact with clients were not significant predictors of emotional exhaustion [21
]. Moreover, in a longitudinal study [48
], only hindrance demands positively predicted strain at three months, whereas challenge stressors did not, in contrast to the findings of cross-sectional research. The authors of this study suggest that it is likely that previous findings from cross-sectional data, demonstrating a positive relationship between challenge stressors and psychological strain, could be either a result of the strain caused by challenge stressors being short-lived, or of stressed employees overreporting exposure to all stressors. In the present study, employees were significantly more emotionally exhausted than managers, which could explain these findings.
Another possible explanation for our findings could be that, emotional demands perceived as part of the role (e.g., in the case of managers with staff responsibility, emotional demands from work relations) are less straining, but emotional demands that might not be perceived as part of the role (e.g., emotional demands from clients) contribute to more strain and emotional exhaustion. The idea that job demands can have different consequences for job-related outcomes can be explained by an extension of the JD-R model that distinguishes between challenge job demands and hindrance job demands [46
]. The general assumption of this dimensional framework is that demands that tend to be viewed as barriers to goal accomplishment and are therefore considered inhibitory to personal growth can be considered as hindrance demands [49
]. In contrast, job demands that can create an opportunity for personal growth and development can be considered as challenge demands [49
]. Relating this to our findings, it is possible that emotional demands that are not perceived as part of the role work as hindrance demands, and therefore contribute to strain and emotional exhaustion, while this is not always the case for emotional demands that might be perceived as part of the role. For example, for a manager with staff responsibility, emotionally demanding situations related to interactions with co-workers, such as conflicts or disciplinary actions, are somehow expected and part of task execution, and therefore may not require additional cognitive, emotional or behavioral coping resources that would otherwise drain energy and lead to emotional exhaustion. In a similar line, a recent study found that some social stressors at work, such as coordination requirements, mediation between colleagues, or enforcing of decisions can be classified as challenge stressors, promoting opportunity for self-efficacy, although at the same time evoking strain [50
Another possible explanation, which could help understand the different results found for employees and managers, is that managers might have more job resources available that can be tapped to mitigate the potential negative effects of emotional demands on emotional exhaustion, particularly for those demands as seen as part of the job. There is ample evidence supporting the role of job resources as buffers of the negative impact of emotional demands, e.g., [9
]. In a previous study conducted in Sweden it was found that managers in general have a more favorable work environment and resources when compared to all the other groups [44
Regarding the impact of emotional demands on work engagement, we found that for managers without staff responsibility, emotional demands from clients predicted higher work engagement, while for managers with staff responsibility, emotional demands from clients predicted lower work engagement. Results for employees, however, were not significant.
Using the challenge–hindrance framework to explain these findings, it is possible that for managers with staff responsibility, dealing with stressful situations from clients, may be appraised more as hindrance demands, as these may not be perceived as part of the role and therefore they may less likely to invest their time and energy in responding to these demands as they think their efforts will not result in success, but rather more exhaustion [47
]. In the same line, managers without staff responsibility may have more client interaction as part of their role and therefore more opportunities to develop appropriate resources to deal with emotionally demanding situations from this source; instead of leading to strain, these interactions may provide opportunities for growth and development, feelings of self-efficacy and optimism, as the employee accumulates knowledge that challenging problems can be solved, which then leads to more work motivation and engagement. A previous meta-analytic study also showed that demands which employees tend to appraise as hindrances were negatively associated with engagement, and demands that employees tend to appraise as challenges were positively associated with engagement [47
The finding that emotional demands from clients were not related to engagement for employees was unexpected. However, other potential moderating variables not measured in the current study might explain this result. In a previous study, for example, a non-significant relationship between emotional demands and work engagement was found only for employees with low levels of self-efficacy, while for employees with higher levels of self-efficacy this relationship was positive [11
Finally, we also found that PSC moderate the path from emotional demands to exhaustion for all workers independently of position. Specifically, organizations with higher levels of PSC have workers reporting a weaker detrimental association between their emotional demands and emotional exhaustion. This moderating role of PSC between demands and health outcomes for workers is a recognized finding in the literature, e.g., [32
]. PSC acts as a macro-level resource as well as a safety signal to combat the health eroding effects of high job demands in the workplace [35
]. That is, workers will be provided with and directed to resources in their workplace to help combat these often-unavoidable demands in the service sector. High PSC also signals to the workers that senior management prioritizes their health and safety, providing workers with a safe space to voice concerns over working conditions (e.g., high emotional demands) as well as systems to manage the high emotional demands (e.g., providing sufficient recovery time).
Our results did not support the hypothesis that PSC would also moderate the effects of emotional demands on work engagement. Previous studies found moderating effects of PSC on work engagement, by decreasing the negative impact of general job demands [32
] and bullying/harassment [51
]. However, no previous studies explored whether PSC moderated the impact of emotional demands on work engagement, so results cannot be directly compared. One possible explanation is that we only found one significant negative direct effect of emotional demands (from clients) on work engagement, but close to being non-significant.
4.1. Limitations and Plans for Future Research
The present study has several limitations that should be taken into account when interpreting the results. First, the relatively low response rate (30.9%) can limit the generalizability of the findings. Furthermore, the data are cross-sectional which does not allow to establish causal relations between the variables. This could be overcome by designing longitudinal studies where variables are measured at different time points. Additionally, data was collected using self-reported measures and therefore subject to common method bias. Improvements in the design could be to use a combination of self-reports with third party reports of employee psychological health, (e.g., clinical assessment) and/or objective measurements (e.g., physiological assessment); or to use an aggregated measure of psychosocial safety climate by sampling several individuals in the same unit to obtain an organization-level climate measure, e.g., [34
]. Moreover, our measure of emotional demands relies on individual perception, and therefore may depend on one’s own psychological state and coping. Previous studies have raised concerns about bias in studies examining perceived emotional demands, e.g., [18
]. Because this is the first study to employ this measure of emotional demands, results need to be replicated in subsequent research. In the same line, perceptions of emotional demands at work as more in-role or extra-role may also vary between individuals, and so future studies should take individual attributions into account rather than establishing these categorizations a priori. Future studies could also control for the potential effects of sociodemographic characteristics in the model, such as age. Previous studies have explored how emotional demands interact with other job demands (e.g., [52
] and resources e.g., [29
]) in predicting well-being and work engagement. This body of research suggests that when other types of demands are absent or low, or when appropriate resources are provided, emotional demands increase employees’ engagement with their role, or in other words, can be perceived as a positive “challenge”. Therefore, future studies could explore these interactions with the new measure of emotional demands.
4.2. Research Conclusions and Implications
Results from this study offer several theoretical and practical implications. Theoretically, this is the first study to our knowledge to have differentiated between sources of emotional demands, and therefore offers a new avenue of research for future studies looking at emotional demands at work. Moreover, this study offers support to the distinction between challenge and hindrance demands, e.g., [47
], and adds to the literature by suggesting that whether emotional demands are perceived as challenge or hindrance may depend on the relational source and, consequently, whether they are seen part of the role. The finding that challenge and hindrance emotional demands were both positively related to emotional exhaustion, while differently related to engagement suggests that these are not opposites poles of the same continuum as has been previously suggested [53
]. Rather, it suggests that individuals who may at some point feel exhausted can at the same time be willing to invest in their work and feel engaged when they are confronted with demands, especially if these are perceived as important and meaningful. Finally, this study adds to the body of evidence supporting PSC as a significant moderator within the broad JD-R framework, protecting workers from the negative outcomes of job demands, e.g., [32
Several important practical implications may be drawn from this study. First, emotional demands were found to be related to service workers’ engagement, suggesting that they can benefit from coping successfully with emotional demands perceived as part of their role. However, frequent exposure to emotional demands is also linked to emotional exhaustion, and therefore it may not be desirable to promote situations that can be a source of emotional demands. Moreover, given that emotional demands are closely tied to work tasks especially for service workers, these can be hard to avoid. Therefore, human resources practices that provide employees with working conditions that allow them to manage emotional demands, for example, by decreasing other types of job demands, e.g., [52
], or by increasing job resources, e.g., [29
], may promote engagement but not at the expense of their psychological well-being. Similarly, efforts to work on modifying PSC in organizations could increase employees’ resilience to the negative effects of emotional demands on psychological well-being, e.g., [54
]. Finally, although we cannot rule out that employees who feel emotionally exhausted simply perceive that they have greater emotional demands, it is also reasonable to suggest that managers could potentially reduce an employee’s emotional exhaustion by limiting the emotional demands the employee must cope with, especially those perceived as hindrances.