Emotional intelligence has been studied for years and can provide leaders with a better understanding of their personal emotional intelligence and how that understanding can be used to better grasp the emotional condition of peers and direct reports. This can help leaders make better connections with those around them by providing a better understanding of a person’s condition from an emotional standpoint while they’re interacting with them.

Although this has been very helpful, there are certain industries that require more emotional strength. One example that comes to mind is the grocery industry. A large portion of the grocery industry is made up of “consumer-facing” employee positions. From the time these employees clock in until their shift ends, they are in front of consumers. There is a certain type of stress that employees who are constantly working in front of an audience tend to face. These employees must not only carry out their duties but do so while interacting with consumers. The result is high levels of emotional labor. Professor Emerita Arlie Hochschild from UC Berkely defined emotional labor as the “management of feelings to create a publically observable facial and bodily display.” It is the regulation of feelings and emotion that an employee displays in order to meet employer expectations, rules and job requirements.

In a global pandemic like the one we are experiencing in 2020, I can imagine that the emotional labor within the grocery industry has only increased. Grocery retailers have very specific values that their workforce is meant to express to their consumers. These values might include making conversation, asking how a customer’s day is and if they can help them find something, or trying to help with meal preparation ideas. Even at checkout, the small talk that takes place must be pleasant and make the consumer feel at home. For their entire shift the employee needs to “be on” when they’re dealing with consumers. With the amount of stress that is taking hold in our communities during crises like this, the emotional labor for these employees has only grown. Not only are they managing their own stress during this pandemic but being asked to present themselves to consumers in a manner that makes them feel comfortable while they’re shopping in the store.

Even without a pandemic, frontline employees have always performed emotional labor that could lead to emotional exhaustion. With the added complexity of COVID-19 in our communities, this emotional exhaustion could be worse than normal. Emotional exhaustion, or burnout, has been defined as “a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.” If employees are in this condition, it can lead to poor performance and bad customer experiences.

In addition to this current situation, many of these employees may lack the experience to manage this emotional labor. Although many have had very successful careers in this industry, a large portion of this employee population may not have had the chance to learn how to manage their emotional output throughout the day. This challenge would also include employees in any consumer-facing industry today.

As leaders, our ability to read this situation has never been more important. Those leaders with high emotional intelligence can see the emotional labor that consumer-facing employees experience daily. Ensuring that the proper environment is in place to help ease the stress of employees always “being on” is crucial to avoid letting them reach the point of emotional exhaustion. This is not an easy task, but those industries that have remained open during a crisis like the pandemic have a great responsibility to ensure employees feel they are being given the time they need to reload, burn off stress and feel safe and secure, so that the added stress of the situation does not affect their ability to perform at a high level while they’re representing our organizations in front of our consumers.