An Introduction to Emotional Labor

In her excellent 1983 book, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, sociologist Arlie Hochschild described what she termed “emotional labor,” or the way that our emotions and emotional states are a part of what we offer (and what is expected from us) in the workplace. For instance, flight attendants must not only understand the intricacies of their physical work on airplanes, but they must also present an open, welcoming demeanor to passengers. Even when passengers are bad-tempered or needy, part of the labor of a flight attendant is to continually offer a calm, helpful, accepting presentation of self.

If passengers are rude, a good flight attendant won’t generally snap at them or ignore their requests. In fact, this normal human reaction is frowned upon; therefore, part of the job description and work product of a flight attendant is to deal in unusual ways to rudeness or bad behavior. This is emotional labor. It’s a part of our social contract with each other, and though it’s not given as much importance as other areas of a job description, emotional labor is possibly the most important job skill you possess.

As you go through your day, pay attention to the emotional labor of the people who serve you, and the people you serve. You probably have very specific (yet unspoken) labor rules for the owners and employees of businesses you visit, even if you’ve never set eyes on them before. You know how they’re supposed to behave, how you’re supposed to behave, and how any other person in the business is supposed to behave. 

You also have very specific emotional labor expectations for yourself, your co-workers, your employees and contractors, and your managers or bosses.

Arlie Hochschild also writes about a more generalized form of labor called “emotion work,” which is the work we do to manage our emotions or the emotions of others in the workplace and in our everyday lives.

Yet even though we all “know” how everyone is supposed to behave, this knowledge is not made clear, and a great deal of the trouble I see in the workplace revolves around emotion work that is either not being performed (the “problem” employee), or is being performed but not valued (the put-upon, or heading-for-burnout employee). The workplace can become really miserable when there is trouble in the sphere of emotion work.

I’ve always been a stranger in the workplace because I can’t believe how poorly emotions are handled in most jobs. I tend to get into trouble because I say, “Hey, why don’t you tell your assistant the truth instead of doing his work for him?” or “That person is working way past her abilities, and she’s bossy and snappy because of it,” or “This person is heading for burnout, and if you call yourself a manager, then manage the tension in this building so your workers don’t get fried!” 

Empathically speaking, I see poorly-managed emotions as a part of the workflow — as an integral part of the profitability and efficiency (or lack thereof) of any business, but most people aren’t really awake to this.

Due to my continual questions about the emotionally incapacitating tendency of the workplace, I decided to study the sociology of work and occupations (this is in addition to my BA in Social Science and my work as a researcher). I became certified in Career Testing and Guidance, and in Human Resource Administration.

And here’s something that totally fascinates me: Career Guidance and HR Administration programs spend almost no time on emotional labor or emotion work. There are a few psychology courses, but the focus is on how to deal with problem employees rather than understanding the nuances of emotion work and how a nonsupportive workplace can create an unproductive emotional atmosphere … and problem employees.

There’s also very little awareness of why people burn out; a great deal of the burnout prevention I was taught focused on making jobs more interesting or varied, but there was almost no awareness of the burnout potential of unsupported emotion work.

So the Career Guidance professionals whose job it is to help us find work, and the HR professionals who oversee the workplace … unless they’ve done extracurricular study, these people usually have no clear training in or understanding of emotion work, which is the central human skill that makes the workplace functional (or, more commonly, dysfunctional!).

So let’s change that and openly discuss our emotion work.

What emotional labor and emotion work do you do, and are they stated as part of your job description? Are you doing any emotion work for a colleague, such as soothing tempers if your colleague blows up, translating for your colleague when others don’t understand, or taking the lead if your colleague cannot speak up on his or her own?

What emotion work do you do? Is it recognized? Do you get paid for it?

8 Responses

  1. Karla
    | Reply

    From the Facebook Fan page:

    I posted that musicians, artists, and actors have figured out a way to get paid for emotion work. Yay!

    Also therapists, psychiatrists, con artists, and pimps. Ooh!

    Plus hairdressers, good middle managers, and reality TV producers (oh, I already said pimps).

    Heehee! Who else?

  2. Suellen Kwong
    | Reply

    Good point, thank you for explaining. Bookmarked your blog for future reference.

  3. Allison Peacock
    | Reply

    Great post! Much food for thought about taking this work INTO the workplace. It’s my mission.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Wouldn’t it be great? Work is where we all are! We spend more time at work than we do at any other place, yet the world of work hasn’t figured out how to create a worthwhile place for humans to be.

      And hoowhee, is the profession of HR in many ways to blame for this. But don’t get me started about HR!

  4. Aleksandra
    | Reply

    I think you forgot the job of sisters! We are constantly doing the emotion work – but no, we are not being paid! I am hoping however, since the scientists are already onto us:

    Can’t wait to get paid for all the work I have ‘done’ on my brother!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thanks Aleksandra! When you get paid, tell me. Then I’ll go to my four siblings and ask for some cash money!

      Wouldn’t it be wonderful if males were allowed to speak and feel openly? Oy!

  5. Kristen
    | Reply

    Karla, can you explain further the role of resistance in stopping the natural flow of emotions?

    The way I understand it is that many of us have built lives around resisting our emotions. We repress anger and have no boundaries, we repress sadness and never let go of things that cause us to experience more anger and sadness long term. So when we don’t have emotional channeling skills, we create life circumstances that make it harder to change. ie getting into a marriage that doesn’t work (had we let our anger flow, we might have seen sooner it wasn’t the right fit).

    So, when we DO start practicing these skills, are the emotions SO pent up, and the circumstances so pent up too, that the first emotions that flow are very intense. But as we learn to allow them to flow and to listen to them/act based on their information, our circumstances change to more favorable situations and major shifts no longer have to occur when we are listening to the more nuanced voices and emotions along the way?

    My question really boils down to this: how does flowing with emotions get easier? how do you practice resisting them less? do they get less intense over time as they flow healthfully? AND, is it because we resist them less and listen to them more and then our circumstances change?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Kristen — excellent awareness and questions! Yes, after a lifetime of repression, learning to work with emotions (instead of against them) does take some getting used to.

      It’s why I include the five Empathic Mindfulness Skills in my work — each one helps reduce the drag that poor emotional awareness and ineffective emotional management have on the emotional realm. Each is a specific Emotion Regulation skill that helps people heal from the nearly-always-terrible emotional training we all get. And luckily, each skill is simple, effective, and fun.

      And yes, everything changes when people can learn to work with and listen to their emotions. It’s a magical, amazing healing that is absolutely life changing. But having said that, it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) lead to a situation where people say, “Whew! I’ve arrived and now I’m emotionally perfect!” Instead, it’s a process of deepening, listening more intentionally, and being open to the incredible, focused, and ancient wisdom the emotions contain.

      This post on How Much Emotion is Too Much may be helpful.

      Working with emotions is a lifelong practice, and it can be work. But it’s good work if you can get it!

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