For the past two years, I’ve been quietly pondering to recover and heal in ways that I didn’t know I needed. I’ve been a hibernating pupa, sheltered by choice, just waiting for my thoughts to come together and for me to emerge fired up and ready to go. This is my Eat, Pray, Love story. It is series that is part of a conversation that I want to have with the world to shift the way we think about wellness and self-care.
Start at the beginning of The Cocoon:
I saw a post on my Facebook feed and the title of the article peaked my curiosity. I saved it and after a few weeks, finally went back to it. This was the start of my A-Ha moment.
The article was “Women Aren’t Nags, We’re just Fed Up” by Gemma Hartley for Harper’s Bazaar. In the article Hartley spoke about how all she wanted for Mother’s Day was for her husband to book a maid service for her. In the end, she received a necklace and her husband cleaned the bathrooms while she tidied up the house as the kids tore it apart. A situation that led to Hartley being immensely upset and her husband confused as to why after all the bathrooms were clean.
Now, I am not in a relationship or married. But I understood Hartley’s situation. I have three brothers and have been working for long enough to know that men and women have different expectations and view work differently. Sweeping for me is picking stuff up from the floor to get underneath it, my brothers go around the same items and feel accomplished.
I needed to know more about emotional labor and jumped down the rabbit hole that is Google Scholar. There are a ton of studies on emotional labor and I stuck to a few that were easier to understand the concepts, as that is what I was looking for. (Note, being a diligent student, I am summarizing here. For a full science article, click here. At the end will be a link to come back at the right spot.)
What is Emotional Labor?
The concept of emotional labor was first introduced by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in the 1980s, as a way to describe an aspect of customer service. Think about going into work on a day when you just had to put down your beloved dog and needing to act cheerful for customers. The projection of emotions that you aren’t actually feeling is emotional labor. Morris and Feldman give the much more scientific definition “effort, planning, and control needed to express organizationally desired emotions during inter personal transactions” in the 1996 paper in The Academy of Management Review.
A scenario: An aid at a retirement home is passing out meals to the residents. As she is helping one resident with his meal, the resident is upset by the fact that he has green Jell-O as he dislikes it and prefers the red Jell-O. The aid acknowledges the resident’s complaint and says that she will go get the red Jell-O after she’s delivered her final 4 meals. She is able to go to the kitchen, get the desired color and return to the resident, who thanks her profusely.
A second scenario: The aid pauses at the door of a resident. He is known for arguing, being unhappy, but he also needs to eat. She also had just been counseled by her supervisor on how she needs to smile more and be more attentive to the residents. The aid puts on a smile and enters the room. The resident is scowling at her. Ignoring the attitude, the aid sets up the meal. As soon as he sees the green Jell-O, he begins to go into a tirade about how much he dislikes it and he wants red Jell-O now. The aid says she will see what she can do. She leaves the room knowing that she can’t get the red Jell-O. She goes to her supervisor for a request to change the meal, but her supervisor is nowhere to be seen. If she goes near the kitchen, the chef will complain to her supervisor that she is bothering him with nonsense. She returns to the resident to let him know there is no red Jell-O and he yells about how horrible she is at her job.
These are two example situations that have two different levels of emotional labor. These will be used to begin the dialogue on how different factors can influence emotional labor.
We have expectations of emotions based off certain situations and jobs that we need to meet. Knowing the social constructs that give us cues as to how we should look and respond is first and most important influence. Being sympathetic and supportive is the correct way to act at a funeral, while it is expected to be excited and energetic at Disneyland.
It’s clear from the studies that I reviewed that there is a debate on whether emotional labor leads to positive or negative outcomes. Researchers have been going back and forth with certain factors being more influential to lean one way or another.
It doesn’t help that emotional labor is a very subjective field. Each person responds differently, which makes it more complicated to study. Yet, there have been a few aspects that have been documented and researched to determine their affect (Morris & Feldman 1996). These include: frequency, level of attentiveness, duration, intensity, variety of emotions, and emotional dissonance. All are influenced by additional factors that include autonomy, demand, resources, and gender expectations.
Work positions don’t usually lie solely with one or another of the aspects. Most are mixed and matched like personalized ice cream sundaes. Especially when you start to factor in other work factors that can further impact a positive or negative relationship to emotional labor.
The Effects of Emotional Labor
Emotional labor can be positive, when your feelings are genuine and the outcomes lead to a feeling of empowerment, especially when we are given autonomy and a number of resources. “To be successful, workers who engage in emotional labor must be aware of their own emotions and manage them, motivate themselves, recognize emotions in others, and respond to them in such a way that the relationship achieves the intended goal (Guy 2004).” In Scenario 1, the aid was able to help an upset customer have a positive experience through what she did. When we can empathize, problem solve, and be excited when we have success, we will feel good about the outcome.
Negative effects of emotional work come about for a few different reasons as demonstrated in Scenario 2. When we have to feel disingenuous, by putting on a neutral face or opposing feeling from our own, we tend to feel fake and as if we are acting creating a distance between us and the other people involved. This emotional dissonance, when how we feel and how we need to respond are vastly different, is the greatest influence on our stress levels (Zapf 2007). If we then add in a higher demand and/or reduction in resources, the liklihood of emotional labor impacting us even further increases.
Overall, emotional labor can significantly affect our psychological and physiological wellbeing through increased stress, lower job satisfaction, feelings of alienation, depression, sleeplessness, ill health, and burn out. Who wants that?
If you have ever gone through conflict resolution with a significant other, "I feel" statements are a significant part. Facts can be disputed, but feeling can't. And emotional labor is riddled with feelings that are valid and undervalued. Our work environments don't acknowledge emotional labor in ways that we need when we are feeling stressed. More companies like to talk about being supportive, when they really aren't. It's almost as if they are gas lighting us. I would frequently ask my colleagues if what I saw and felt made sense to the situation just to add validation that I wasn't crazy.
For me, knowing that there was a term that existed that gave me even more affirmation of my own experiences created a sense of peace that I desperately longed for. It handed me a starting place to further address my own emotions and why I feel it is an important piece to a larger conversation on self-care.
Continue the conversation in Glimpses of a Career Rife With Emotional Labor.
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Guy, M. E., & Newman, M. A. Women's Jobs, Men's Jobs: Sex Segregation and Emotional Labor. (2004). Public Administration Review, 64(3), 289-298. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-6210.2004.00373.x
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Holman, D., Martínez-Iñigo, D., & Totterdell, P. Emotional labor and well-being: An integrative review (2008). In N. M. Ashkanasy & C. L. Cooper (Eds.), Research Companion to Emotion in Organizations pp.301-31. Publisher: Edward Elgar.
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Wharton, A., (2009). The Sociology of Emotional Labor. Annual Review of Sociology, 34, 147-165. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-soc-070308-115944
Zapf, D., & Holz, M. (2007). On the positive and negative effects of emotion work in organizations. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 15(1), 1-28. https://doi.org/10.1080/13594320500412199
Kate Hamm combines her 15+ years of experience in the fitness industry and high-end resort program development into sought after wellness adventures at AnamBliss. Visit www.anambliss.com for future retreat dates and locations.