Emotional Labour in the Malaysian Higher Education

UoM administered thesis: Phd

  • Authors:
  • Tengku Elena Tengku Mahamad


Emotional labour concerns the management of feelings as part of a person’s job role. Studies on emotional labour have mostly focused on the role played by the focal worker (or agent) who is expected to engage in the management of feelings, neglecting the possibility that the recipient of emotional labour (or target) might play a more active and extensive role in shaping the process. Moreover, research in this field has largely concentrated on how agents manage their own feelings to meet organisational expectations, rather than also considering how the management of other people’s feelings might be a core part of emotional labour. This doctoral thesis aimed to address the roles played by both agents and targets in the emotional labour process and to examine the use of strategies to manage one’s own and others’ feelings during emotional labour. An additional aim was to explore factors that influence emotional labour, including agents’ gender and seniority and the type of institution they work within. The central questions in this thesis were applied to a specific context: higher education. In particular, academics were studied as the agents of emotional labour, with their students as the targets. Emotional labour is highly salient in this context because academics’ emotion management has been suggested to play an important role in getting students engaged in their learning. I adopted a qualitative case study approach to study these issues. Data were generated from interviews, focus groups, and observations involving 44 participants comprising of academics, students, and heads of teaching staff from four case study universities (two teaching-focused and two research-focused university) in Malaysia. The interviews, focus groups, and observations generated rich accounts, examples, and reflections on participants’ experiences relating to emotional labour in relation to lectures. The resulting data were analysed using template analysis. Findings suggested that students are not passive recipients of emotional labour; instead, they are active participants whose emotional responses play an integral aspect in shaping how academics feel and are an important driver of the academics’ subsequent emotional labour. Moreover, students also discussed initiating and reciprocating the regulation of emotion during lectures, driven by motives such as achieving personal goals (e.g., higher grades). There was clear evidence of academics (as well as students) using strategies to manage others’ feelings as well as their own, suggesting that ‘interpersonal emotion regulation’ is a core mechanism for achieving emotional labour requirements. In addition, I found that a key area in which emotional labour is used is ‘backstage’, outside of face-to-face interactions with targets, in order to prepare before and recover after performing emotional labour. Finally factors such as gender, seniority, and institution type were seen to have a profound impact on the emotional labour process, affecting the type of strategies that academics and students use and how these strategies were received and responded to by others. Based from these findings, a conceptual model of emotional labour is presented that places greater emphasis on the active roles played by both agents and targets of emotional labour. The model recognises that emotional labour is a two-way process where both the agent and target regulate each other’s emotions in the emotional labour process. This thesis ends with a presentation of key theoretical and practical contributions followed by limitations of this research and directions for future research.


Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date1 Aug 2019