Leading, Teaching, Emotional Labour, and How We Manage It Well

The Australian Principal Occupational Health Safety and Wellbeing Survey 2020 makes for both inspiring and sobering reading. It’s inspiring to read of the extraordinary ways educators responded to the challenges in the last few years. There was a lot of ‘going above and beyond’. However, the findings also highlight that leading a school has become increasingly challenging. Other international studies report similar negative impacts on teacher well-being due to pandemic pressures (Pressley, Ha, Learn,2021; Hascher, Beltman & Mansfield, 2021).

While we acknowledge how the pandemic, with its associated stresses and uncertainties, has intensified these challenges, teaching, and leading teachers, has always been emotionally demanding. However, there is little doubt that educator work got tougher in the last couple of years.

A crucial component of leading and teaching is the ‘emotional labour’ involved. ‘Emotional labour’ (EL) has been defined as “…the effort, planning and control needed to express organisationally desired emotion during interpersonal transactions" (Morris & Feldman, as cited in Kinman, Wray & Strange, 2011, p.844). EL is one of the factors that makes leading (and teaching) particularly challenging and contributes to stress and burnout. Educators who have led and taught through the last couple of years will not likely dispute this.

What’s encouraging, though, is that it is becoming more apparent that there are things that can help educators manage some of the challenges and stresses of more intensive ‘emotional labour’. In particular, two positive influences contributing to the management of EL have emerged in one teacher-focused study from the UK (Kinman, Wray & Strange,2011).

Providing Social Support

Increasingly, it is being recognised that social support is one key way of helping to mitigate the negative impact of ‘emotional labour’. Common sense suggests that this might be the case but it is helpful that an evidence base is emerging to support ‘hunches’ around this. We can conceive of social support on a continuum exploring less formal to more formal forms of support. We recognise that informal and incidental interactions with others can be cathartic and helpful. This form of social support can be most beneficial when it is intentional and constructive in its orientation. Having a chat can be beneficial, but it is also worth noting that sometimes it can make things worse. Not every conversation is life-giving. Conversations are a more helpful form of social support when they are curated and oriented towards learning, progress, and positive energy.

So what can help in these more informal social support interactions?

  • Listening well can be enormously helpful (and very under-rated practice) and participating in a good ‘listening workout’ might be all that is needed.
  • In addition to listening well, a conversational partner can help bring about more powerful social support when there is a focus on exploring a couple of crucial areas. It can be helpful to explore,
    • what is wanted instead of the current experience,
    • what is already working in the situation,
    • what might be tiny next steps.

When skilfully integrated within informal conversations, this approach can bring positive energy and a sense of progress to what potentially can be ‘heavy’, de-energising interaction. Even short conversations thoughtfully conceived can help provide significant social support.

Of course, it can also be helpful to engage in more formal social support. This can occur in professional learning communities, intentional reflective practice sessions, or various forms of peer coaching. These more formal interactions suggest that they are likely to be more intrinsically intentional with more clearly identified purpose, outcomes, and processes.

Growing Emotional Intelligence

Two concepts are central to ‘emotional intelligence’ (EQ), the term popularised by Daniel Goleman (2005). The first is concerned with an awareness of the emotions that oneself and others might be experiencing; the second is the ability to manage those noticed emotions. It’s not hard to see how this fits with better navigating the challenges of ‘emotional labour’. Experiencing individual coaching or learning coaching skills are both helpful ways to enhance EQ. And it is worth doing, not only from a managing emotional labour perspective but also for all the other leadership benefits that flow from growing in this area.

So, social support and growing EQ turn out to be useful ways to help manage the challenges that increasing levels of emotional labour bring. It’s not hard to see the connection with coaching, being coached, and developing coaching skills in all of this. Fortunately, many additional complimentary resources across the GCI website can help. So, if you have not visited for a while it might be time to take a look!


  • Australian Principal Occupational Health Safety and Wellbeing Survey 2020: Executive Summary. Retrieved from https://www.healthandwellbeing.org/reports/ AU/2021_ACU_Principals_HWB_Executive_Summary.pdf.
  • Goleman, D. (2005). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. Random House Publishing.
  • Kinman, G., Wray, S, & Strange, C. (2011). Emotional labour burnout and job satisfaction in UK teachers: The role of workplace social support. Educational Psychology, 31:7, 843-856.
  • Hascher, T., Beltman, S., & Mansfield, C. (2021). Swiss Primary Teachers’
  • Professional Well-Being During School Closure Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Frontiers in psychology, 12, 687512. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.687512
  • Pressley T, Ha C, Learn E. (2021). Teacher stress and anxiety during COVID-19: An empirical study. School Psychologist.36(5):367-376.