The truth is this: you live at work.
If you count up your hours at work and add in your commute, and then add the time you spent becoming trained for your career, you’ll find that you’ve spent more time at work than in any other place.
Basically, we all live at work — yet for the most part, the work world has not created a comfortable, healthy, or emotionally well-regulated place for us to be.
People in the work world mistakenly call emotional skills soft skills, yet we’ve all been in jobs where the emotional atmosphere was managed so poorly that every possible aspect of our work suffered. Emotional skills are not soft skills at all; they’re actually the most important skills you and your colleagues can possess.
Understanding emotional labor, or emotion work
In her groundbreaking book, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, sociologist Arlie Hochschild (pronounced hoke-shilled) 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.
In her book, Hochschild gives examples of flight attendants, who must not only understand the intricacies of their physical work on airplanes, but must also display an open and welcoming demeanor to passengers. Even when passengers are bad-tempered or overly needy, part of the work of a flight attendant is to continually offer a calm, helpful, and accepting face to the public. This is a flight attendant’s emotional labor, or emotion work.
As we’ve all witnessed, flight attendants are expected to continually offer an accommodating and empathic demeanor to passengers, no matter what perils or discomforts occur. These demeanor rules are not often written down explicitly in job descriptions, yet they’re an intrinsic part of what we’ve all come to expect (and even demand) from flight attendants.
The concept of emotion work helps us look at the often unwritten emotional and empathic behaviors that are expected in the workplace – and at how workers must manage their own emotions and the emotions of others in order to get their jobs done.
For instance, if airline passengers are rude, a good flight attendant won’t generally snap at them or ignore their requests – as he might if his friends or family treated him rudely. In fact, his normal human reactions would be frowned upon by the airline (and by the other passengers); therefore, part of his job description (stated or not) is to deal with rudeness and bad behavior in unusual or even counter-productive (to him) ways.
This is emotion work – and in many cases, it’s actually enforced empathizing. It’s a part of our social contract with each other, and though it’s not usually spoken of explicitly as a job requirement, emotion work is possibly the most important job skill you possess.
Identifying emotion work
As you go through your day, pay attention to the emotion work-loads of the people who serve you, and of the people you serve. You probably have very specific (yet unspoken) emotion-work rules for the owners and employees of businesses you visit (especially restaurants and stores), even if you’ve never set eyes on anyone in the business before.
One common unspoken expectation is that people in service or retail positions must be empathic toward you. They must appear to care about you and your latte, or your shoes, or your cat food – even if they’re making minimum wage and you’re wealthy; even if they’re well-dressed and you just got out of the gym, with your hair still wet. It doesn’t matter what you look like or how you behave; your position as a customer – or even as a potential customer – entitles you to free empathy and respect.
Our expectations of emotion work and professionalized empathy are so ingrained that you and I know how every person in a business is supposed to behave toward us, how we’re supposed to behave toward them, and how other customers are supposed to behave toward all of us. Everyone has a very specific part to play, and a very specific emotional and empathic performance that is required.
Strangely, most of us have never been taught explicitly about any of this emotion work; we’re just supposed to have picked it up through cultural osmosis.
At your own job, notice that you have very specific emotion-work and empathy-work expectations for yourself, your co-workers, your employees and contractors, and your managers or bosses. 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 overburdened or heading-for-burnout employee). The workplace can become really miserable when there is trouble in the sphere of emotion work.
In many cases, emotion-work rules require that we behave inauthentically with each other and toward ourselves. This is not to say that emotion work is inauthentic or toxic: Empathically speaking, we all work to help each other function (and become more skilled) in the social world, and sometimes that means displaying emotions we aren’t currently feeling, or hiding the ones we are.
This everyday emotion work is what makes relationships flow smoothly; it’s what helps us relate to and support each other, and it’s what helps us mature as emotional, social, and empathic beings.
As you empathically observe your social world, take an inventory of your emotion work and ask yourself: Is your emotion work being acknowledged by anyone? Is it appreciated? Is it even mentioned? Could it become more intentional and conscious? And does it work for everyone?
Emotion work is an intrinsic aspect of empathic skills and relationship skills, but it tends to be entirely unconscious – and as such, it tends to live in the hidden world of nuance, undercurrent, gesture, and unspoken expectations. However, there are ways to bring emotion work out of the shadows.
The hidden nature of emotion work
As a hyper-empathic young woman, I was hilariously out of place in most jobs, because emotion work was so obvious to me that I didn’t realize other people couldn’t see it. I tended to get into trouble because I would say out loud, “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 job and protect your workers!”
Empathically speaking, I saw poorly-managed emotions, unjust emotion work, and enforced, inauthentic empathy as an integral part of the unprofitability and inefficiency of the workplace – but until I discovered Arlie Hochshild’s work, I had no vocabulary for it.
There is a saying that “People don’t quit their jobs; they quit their managers,” because the fact is that very few people leave jobs because their daily tasks were too hard; instead, they often leave because the emotional and empathic environment was not managed effectively.
After four years of study, the answer is this: The experts say almost nothing.
HR Administration programs spend almost no time on emotion work and enforced empathy requirements. There are one or two psychology courses sprinkled here and there, but the main focus is on administrative organization first, and then on how to deal with problem employees second.
There’s very little understanding of the nuances of emotion work and how an unsupportive workplace can create an unproductive emotional atmosphere … which will then create problem employees!
There’s also very little awareness of why people burn out: A great deal of the burnout response-and-prevention I was taught focused on making jobs more varied and interesting, but there was almost no awareness of the burnout potential of unsupported, unjust, or unreasonable emotion work and enforced empathy.
In my Career Testing & Guidance education, I also found no mention of emotion work or its effect on morale, workplace mood, or turnover.
Sadly, 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) usually have no direct education in or understanding of emotion work, which is the central empathic skill that makes the workplace functional (or, more commonly, dysfunctional).
There is a saying that “People don’t quit their jobs; they quit their managers,” because the fact is that very few people leave jobs because their daily tasks were too hard; instead, they often leave because the emotional and empathic environment was not managed effectively. It’s an ongoing problem that the workplace as an entity truly hasn’t got a handle on – at all.
As such, I didn’t pursue Career Guidance or HR after I finished my certifications; however, I did discover precisely why emotion work problems in the workplace aren’t being addressed: we’ve got on-site specialists and processes for almost every other problem that exists in the workplace, but the Human Resource professionals whose job it is to humanize the workplace have not been reliably educated or trained to understand emotion work. Therefore, it’s up to you and me.
Bringing emotion work out into the open
People who are empathically sensitive tend to pick up on – and then address – the emotional troubles around them. However, because emotions and emotion work live in the shadows, these people are often unaware that they are engaged in perpetual, unpaid emotion work.
They tend to clean up the emotional troubles around them. They mediate between people who can’t get along. They jolly the grumpy people in their lives. They translate emotions into easily digestible chunks for their emotionally unaware friends and family. They calm people who are unaccountably anxious. They always seem to sit next to the person who wants a confidante. People tend to bring them their troubles and their conflicts … and no matter what their stated job description is, they have a second full-time job: They’re professional emotion workers and professional empaths. But because their work isn’t identified as work, they may burn out.
Managers can learn to identify the emotion work-loads of their employees, and in so doing, they can begin to create emotionally well-regulated workplaces that won’t burn people out unnecessarily.
Creating an emotionally well-regulated workplace
There are literally thousands of books and programs that target the workplace in terms of how to make people into better workers and thereby increase productivity. Empathically speaking, most of them fail because they ignore unsupported emotion work and how it can drive behavior, undermine relationships, and lead to needless burnout.
The key to making the workplace work for everyone is to create an emotionally well-regulated and comfortable environment where emotion work-loads are recognized, appreciated, and managed appropriately. With these goals in mind, here are five approaches to help you create an emotionally aware and productive workplace that is respectful of the social and emotional needs of everyone.
- Be aware of the emotional work-loads your colleagues are experiencing at home. In many (or most?) workplaces, people must manage their own emotions, soothe the emotions of others, and offer free empathy throughout the day. This is fine if people arrive at work with a surplus of energy and emotional vigor, but emotion work can be fatiguing if people are being emotionally drained at home. Sometimes, the workplace can be an oasis of order and reliability in the area of emotion work – it can even be an escape from a chaotic or troubled home environment – but if it isn’t, please be alert to the pre-existing social and emotional condition of your colleagues.
- Support people’s right to be comfortable at work. Most workplace layouts are based on cost savings or on current fads in workplace organization – but they are rarely focused on the reality that people live at work. If people work 30 to 45 hours per week, they spend more time at work than they do at home or with their families. Only the bedroom competes with the workplace in terms of how much time people spend there. People spend their lives at work, and they should be physically and emotionally comfortable in their workplace environment.
- Identify any unsupported emotion work and acknowledge it openly. Observe the emotion-work requirements at your workplace. Which emotions are required in interactions with customers, suppliers, and co-workers? Is empathy toward customers required but unacknowledged? Is there any support in place for people who are overwhelmed or heading for empathic burnout? And what kinds of emotional rules are active, and for whom?
- Identify and acknowledge any emotional inequality. Are the emotion rules different at different levels of the organization? Can one person or group display (for instance) anger, depression, or anxiety, while everyone else must display only happiness and complacency? Is empathy available to everyone, or is it only directed at clients and customers? To the extent that you can, acknowledge any unequal or differential emotion work and empathy work openly.
- Welcome open conversations about emotion work. Burnout occurs when people aren’t allowed to identify or speak about their emotion work or their professionalized empathy requirements. You can help to create a healthier, more functional, and more emotionally well-regulated workplace if you can simply speak openly and honestly about emotion work and empathy.
You can become aware of the emotion work you do, and of the emotion work and empathy work you require from others – and in so doing, you can create a more supportive, emotionally well-regulated, and truly workable environment for everyone.
People who are empathically sensitive tend to pick up on – and then address – the emotional troubles around them. However, because emotions and emotion work aren’t clearly understood, these people are often unaware that they are engaged in constant, unpaid emotion work.
They tend to clean up the emotional troubles around them. They mediate between people who can’t get along. They jolly the grumpy people in their lives. They translate emotions into easily digestible chunks for their emotionally unaware friends and family. They calm people who are anxious. They always seem to sit next to the person who needs to unload. People tend to bring them their troubles and their conflicts … and no matter what their stated job description is, they have a second full-time job: They’re professional emotion workers and professional empaths. But because their work isn’t identified as work, they may burn out.
Managers can learn to identify the emotional work-loads of their employees, and in so doing, they can begin to create emotionally well-regulated workplaces that won’t burn people out unnecessarily.
The truth is that you live at work. We all do. And we all deserve to live well, to be treated well, and to have our emotion work valued as the essential work it is!