I first heard the term emotional labor when I read Gemma Hartley's article “Women Aren’t Nags, We’re just Fed Up” 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.
It resonated with me and many of my own work situations. Being a diligent student, 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, for a summary, you can read my article here.)
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 looked at 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 are:
- Frequency How many interactions do you have? A fast food restaurant may have 5 interactions in 5 minutes versus a fine dining restaurant who may only have a few tables all night. Is it a part time position versus a full time?
- Level of Attentiveness Can you go through the motions or do you need to be very aware of what is happening? A grocery store clerk doesn’t need to interact as much as a front desk clerk at a luxury hotel.
- Duration The amount of time spent in emotional labor at a given time. With the level of connectedness that we expect on a regular basis, work hours blur into our free time, increasing the level of duration.
- Intensity Will a smile suffice or do you have to deeply act to project a certain emotion?
- Variety of emotions Do you just have to be happy and enthusiastic or do you have to feel sad with one guest, excited with another, or cautious with a third?
- Emotional Dissonance How different do you have to act versus how you are currently feeling? That aspect of having to put aside a family tragedy to be a smiling, excited tour guide.
Work positions don’t usually lie solely with one or another of the aspects. Most are mixed and matched like personalized ice cream sundaes.
Scientists have taken the six factors listed above and found that several additional factors greatly influence how we respond to emotional labor. Autonomy, demand, resources, and gender expectations shift our reactions even further.
Being given the freedom to express yourself in your own way with little direction from management can reduce negative effects of emotional labor. Think of the sassy diner waitress who has quick-witted responses and feels free to ignore rude customers. Their ability to have little oversight in their interactions contributes to a more positive level of emotional labor.
When a job requires a script to regulate behavior and responses, the autonomy dissipates. You can have the exact same interaction at certain places across the country every day, because of this automation. It can make a job more robotic and impact self-identity that can lead to negative emotional labor, but it also creates a wall that insulates the worker from their emotions neutralizing the effect (Wharton 2009). If the worker also has a manager watching their every interaction to make sure the script is followed, there is no autonomy and more likely a negative reaction to the emotional labor.
Autonomy can empower a worker. If they are able to solve a problem on their own, similar to the first scenario I mentioned at the start of the article, a more positive emotional response will result. The second scenario where there were more hoops and oversight can negatively impact the level of emotional labor (Martínez-Iñigo 2008).
Some positions have a higher expectation for the amount of emotional labor that needs to be provided to complete tasks. Someone working in manufacturing doesn’t have as much interaction as a coffee shop employee. The level of interaction with a client for the coffee shop employee versus a life coach is also different. The life coach has a much higher demand on how they display their emotions, partly because of the length of time, but also due to a greater level of involvement. It is expected that they react to a story.
When we have a pressure to constantly be at a certain emotion state, it can increase the level of dissatisfaction and negative response. At the same time, the increase level of connection could produce a positive response.
Part of the definition of psychological stress is the reaction to a situation where there is a loss of resources whether actual, as a threat, or non-replenishment. In first reading this you may think of physical resources, such as staff, money, or supplies, but there are also psychological resources. These are “objects, personal characteristics, conditions, or energies that are valued by the individual or that serve as a means for attainment of these objects, personal characteristics, conditions, or energies (Hobfoll 1989).” Our own self-perception in regards to self-esteem, our skills, effort, and ability are individual resources, while contextual resources include job control and social support (Holman 2008).
Having and being able to replenish resources will give us a positive reaction to emotional labor. Someone who is confident, and has the support of the boss with the supplies needed for the job, has great resources. A person who has a high stress job, but ample time off, can balance out to be more positive or neutral. Someone who struggles with self-esteem, is told that they are lucky they could get this job because they have no education, and to make due with 5 pens for 20 people, has no resources and will have a negative response to emotional labor.
Women have learned from a young age to model caregiver skills. One of our first toys is usually a doll. We are generally expected to smile more than men, be nice, friendly, supportive, and submissive. The needs of others come before our own needs. Men are raised expected to be considerate, helpful, assertive, and polite (Wharton 2009).
It is then no surprise that many careers that include taking care of others or being supportive are predominately considered “women’s jobs.” Our training to suppress emotions is encouraged further, while positions that hold more status that tend to be more male dominated fields, allows for greater autonomy over the emotional state (Erickson 2001). I.e. A service worker is expected to respond to anger with calmness, while a CEO can raise his voice back.
Even when women gain positions of power, we are usually called bossy or bitchy while men are assertive and confident. We have to tip toe along socially accepted female behavior and makes us come across less confident when we soften our actions or come across as asking questions instead of statements. This pressure leaves women needing to be more emotional distant from their true emotions, creating a situation that is more prone to stress caused by emotional labor.
This doesn’t mean that men are not susceptible to taking on emotional labor, in fact the rate is increasing. It’s just that societal norms expect women to shoulder the bulk of emotional labor through nurture. We are to be the cheerleaders on the sidelines as a source of support, while men take on the responsibility of leadership and decision-making.
Women make up a significant part of the workforce. For many areas, dual incomes are needed to survive. But child-raising, taking care of the home, and providing meals for the family, still lie more on women than men. More men are staying at home with children and are stepping up with the home life, which is amazing and we need more acceptance. But as long as women shoulder the bulk of home caregiving (especially when you add in aging parents), the emotional labor carries on into the home.
MEN GET MAN CAVES TO RETIRE TO AFTER WORK;
WOMEN GET THE KITCHEN.
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?
The Emotional Labor Debate
Whenever a new topic gets discussed in the main stream, there are others who counter it. Andrew Ardison in his Medium article uses Seth Godin as an inspiration when he says, “The emotional labor is the work. The emotional labor is what you’re being paid for. It’s the human element, the flash of inspiration, the spark of creativity.” But this applies more to the aspects of positive emotional labor. You can’t compare serving someone who genuinely appreciates the work that you do versus someone who appears to be solely out to make your job more difficult or doesn’t even acknowledge that you exist.
I full on miss the toll takers at the Mass Pike. That human connection of hello on a crazy journey was welcome versus the automated machines we have now.
There is a positive mindset that is needed for emotional labor, especially when you work with others. Some systems are designed to beat you up and turn you into a machine. The support and recovery systems have to be in place in order for success across the board to occur in order for there to be more positive emotional labor outcomes that Godin idealizes.
Haley Swenson, has an amazing article on Slate, discussing the overuse and misuse of the term emotional labor. Sweson says, “we need to get better at teasing out the many layers of labor and frustration leading to these perceived patterns, rather than throwing them all in the emotional labor bin.” There is definitely truth to this. We are emotional creatures who feel a thousand different ways every day. Why should we label all of it as emotional labor? It’s called living.
Instead she used mental load as a way to describe the way work weighs on us, especially the tasks that we assign feelings to that don’t really need it. For example the need to plan an event, instead of just booking a caterer, but spending hours finding the perfect one to capture a theme and needing it done yesterday. We add the stress unnecessarily.
At home, maternal gatekeeping, is the cause of our stress. Trying to get everything perfect. It’s helicopter parenting for the home.
All together, for Swenson, the use of the term emotional labor for many women as used to explain the frustration felt by not being recognized, appreciate, or compensated, is really patriarchy.
Pause and Take a Breath
Right now your brain is most likely overloaded, just as mine was. Thoughts, emotions, swirling around, as you try to make sense of it all. Putting a puzzle together. So pause. Take a deep breath. And let everything percolate for a moment.
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 with The Cocoon series, Part 3: Glimpses of a Career Rife With Emotional Labor
Start reading The Cocoon from The Beginning to learn about the evolution of AnamBliss.
Erickson, R. J., & Ritter, C. Emotional labor, burnout, and inauthenticity: Does gender matter? (2001.) Social Psychology Quarterly, 64(2), 146-163. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/3090130
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
Hobfoll, S. E. (1989). Conservation of resources: A new attempt at conceptualizing stress. American Psychologist, 44(3), 513-524. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.44.3.513
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.
Martínez-Iñigo, D., Totterdell, P., Alcover, C. M. & Holman, D. (2007). Emotional labour and emotional exhaustion: Interpersonal and intrapersonal mechanisms, Work & Stress, 21:1, 30 – 47. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02678370701234274
Pugliesi, K. (1999). The consequences of emotional labor: Effects on work stress, job satisfaction, and well-being. Motivation and Emotion, 23, 125-154. http://dx.doi.org/10.1023/A:1021329112679
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.