Emotional Labor

Last fall we discussed in 'Professional or Human Being?' the ethics of being required to use your emotions and personhood to perform a job. This time through an article talking about various kinds of work involving caring for people, I've found there's a concept called Emotional Labor. I'd like to explore this idea a little bit.


When you perform your job are you actually 'performing' at your job?
To what extent are we performing a role when we go to work? Does it change over time? How much of your 'real' you is put into your work?
In the ideal, how much separation should there be between you and your job. Should your work be a part of you or something separate from you?

Are emotions a part of work? Are they supposed to be?
Are you emotionally invested in your job? Always, or just some parts?
Do emotions detract from doing a job well? When is this true?
Do they enhance the ability to do a job well? When is this true?

Should our emotions be the commodity? Should our emotions be part of the skillset we're offering to a job? Should our emotions be part of the job, be for sale?

Does being emotionallly invested in your job mean you're doing emotional labor?

Why does labeling something 'emotional' seem to diminish it?

What jobs require emotional labor?
Is emotional labor less or more important than other kinds of work?
Is emotional labor 'real' work, or 'professional' work? Why or why not?

Are we prepared for emotional labor, as a culture?
Do we understand well what emotions are and how to deal with them?
Do we understand how to do emotional labor well?
Why or why not?

What is the value of emotional labor?



Below are some article excerpts. Also below are some comments made on one of the articles. As always, click the title to go to the original article/comment.

What is Emotional Labor?
Hochschild defines emotional labor as "the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display." This is distinguished from "emotion work," the private use of emotional self-manipulation, because emotional labor "is sold for a wage and therefore has exchange value." In emotional labor, a worker's emotion is the commodity. Bartenders, therapists, child care workers and the like trade in emotions, and put their own private feelings on the line in the process. Emotional labor, like all work, takes its own peculiar tolls. In the world of commodified caring, the greatest risk to professional longevity is burnout, the stultifying feeling of not being able to keep up with the emotional demands of the job.


A Simple-language summary of "The Managed Heart"


Nannies' emotional labor, and how it changes their personal lives
Nannies are made to feel they are part of the family, and in some ways, they are, but they achieve that by closely observing the emotion work done by a child's parents and mimicking it through their emotional labor. To achieve that familial feeling, to endear herself to her employers and her charges, a nanny has to work according to her employer's emotional methodology, not her own. Olivia's parents and I shared similar views and methods of childrearing; initially, I thought Jeannie's parents and I did as well, and my connection with Jeannie and her family felt as genuine as my connection with Olivia and hers.

Small differences began to pile up: how and what Jeannie should eat, how her achievements should be noted or celebrated, how her misbehavior should be addressed. My labor no longer felt effortless; I was made to feel I was a part of the family, but I no longer believed it myself, and the dissonance between how I should feel toward Jeannie and how I did feel (frustrated, annoyed, and strained) began to wear at me. I adjusted my work accordingly, and outwardly disguised that dissonance through a more labored performance; the stress and frustration of that adjustment moved into my private life. When Jeannie was a toddler, my desire to have a child began to fade; by the time I stopped working as a nanny, it was gone completely.


Nurses' emotional labor a key component of their work
Like most nursing students, I started my first day of patient care with a panic attack on my way to the hospital, convinced that my patients would see me as an incompetent fraud interfering with their health care. Nurse educators are eager to point out that nurses have been rated the most highly trusted professionals in the U.S. for as long as they've been included in the Gallup poll on professional honesty and ethics.

When I walked into my first patient's room, it was clear that she trusted me, and that displaying any of my own anxiety would violate that trust, so I put it away. She was an older woman with severe osteoporosis, and she had been given an enema that morning in preparation for a colonoscopy. As soon as my colleague Angela and I had introduced ourselves, she was asking for the bedpan, though then and for the rest of the day she'd realized she needed it a little too late. She was in severe pain, confused, and embarrassed, and Angela was clearly disgusted and terrified. Later in the day, when we helped her with her bed bath, Angela mumblingly asked the patient whether she would prefer to clean her own "area," knowing that she was almost completely immobile and in need of a particularly thorough washing under the circumstances; the patient responded with more confusion and embarrassment.

Much of the work nurses do depends on translating authoritative knowledge into therapeutic communication; because nursing education has to prepare students for their eventual board exam, it often focuses more on absorbing and applying a vast catalog of knowledge and technical skills than on how to feel and show empathy, how to do effective patient teaching, and how to take care of your own emotions along the way. Outside of the caring professions, empathy isn't usually something that needs to be taught; when it's a part of your labor, though, it's more vulnerable and complex. When we learned how to do bed baths in class, we'd gone through the minutiae of every step (clean the eye from inner to outer canthus-common NCLEX question!) until we reached perineal care; for that, we were instructed to watch an instructional video at home. Considering that our instructor displayed her own discomfort with the matter, it's reasonable that Angela and others would be particularly unprepared for that kind of patient care.

After years of childcare and years of sex work, I'm at ease with recognizing that genitals are sometimes sexual but not always, and I'm not disturbed or embarrassed by anyone else's body or bodily functions. I'm also accustomed to working harder to put my clients at ease when they're uncomfortable or unwell. A nurse can't treat a patient for Body Image Disturbance—the experience of being afraid, upset by, or disconnected from your physical appearance when it's affected by changes in health status—if she's disturbed by a patient's missing limb or incontinence and unable to disguise her own discomfort.


The industry fails to recognize emotional component of nurse labor
Industry speed-ups in the form of high nurse-to-patient ratios clearly impede measurable aspects of the nursing process like patient assessment; it's less clear how they impact nurses' ability to provide effective emotional labor. When emotional labor works, it does so for the client and for the worker herself. Performing the nontechnical aspects of nursing require more time spent with patients, something nurses are often not afforded.
I'm adept at professional caring, and used to finding new ways to care for myself as I do it. I'm also used to seeing that labor made invisible; when it's most effective, emotional labor seems effortless. When it stops working, there's no prescribed fix, and because emotional labor is difficult to measure, it can be hard to figure out where and why it's broken to begin with. It's often easier to stomach your feelings than it is to bring feelings into a labor dispute, easier to tell yourself to buck up than to take a needed break, easier to switch off at work than to quit your job.
When individual care workers are tapped out, the market consequences are likely minimal, and no one is going to give a TED Talk about an innovative new technology of care; the struggles of care workers have to be acknowledged as labor issues and social issues, not problems of capital. Care workers don't just perform a service with a beginning and an end, don't produce something you can buy and put in a drawer, but the empathic gestures of emotional labor, commodified as they are, are fully integrated with the emotion work we all do when we chat with a stranger in the grocery line, hold someone's hand when they're sick, or laugh at a bad joke. Whether we care freely, with effort, or for a wage, we can and should expect our own empathic gestures mirrored back at us.


Surface vs. Deep Acting
Arlie Hochschild did recognise the difference between 'surface acting', staying chipper for customer service reasons, and 'deep acting', dealing with people the ways nurses do. Surface acting tends to come across as inauthentic, as those who perform it usually don't care about how genuine they come across; this can annoy customers who pick up on the shallowness of the whole thing. Deep acting means you become emotionally invested in what you do and what people who you come across in your line of work think of you. This obviously comes across as more genuine, but can come at the cost of 'burnout'.
If you're interested, I really recommend reading Hochschild's book, The Managed Heart, which is awesome.


Compassion Fatigue
When I was working at an animal shelter in a high-burnout position, we actually had a psychologist who specialized in compassion fatigue come talk to us. He said that one of the biggest tools in our arsenal for avoiding compassion fatigue was developing a healthy detachment from these situations -- that is, learning to not become deeply personally invested in every single crisis and sad situation and animal that we came across in our jobs. It's not the same as being uncaring or completely detached; it's just developing your own personal boundaries in terms of how emotionally invested you can be in your work. "Caring too much" is kind of how compassion fatigue begins, and eventually it leads to not being able to care at all and throwing up walls all around yourself.
Some people thrive in emotionally intense and distressing situations and don't have problems with compassion fatigue. Some people will thrive initially and then burn out. Overall it's more important to establish your own boundaries and find out what works best for you. But, yes, in the phenomenon of compassion fatigue, learning healthy detachment is an important part of self-care.

On the contrary, compassion fatigue is a known problem in most care-driven fields and many professions are working to make workers aware of it. Healthy detachment is an important part of coping with compassion fatigue -- doctors and nurses and veterinarians and veterinary technicians and animal sheltering professionals need to develop a healthy detachment from their patients in order to do their jobs and not meltdown if something upsetting walks in the door. I have worked in the animal sheltering and veterinary fields for my entire working life; detachment is necessary so that when someone walks in with a kitten who has been set on fire, you can jump into Professional Mode and attend to the kitten without crying about how awful and upsetting it is.


Emotional labor as 'women's work', is somehow less important?
I just think it's problematic that all of the "emotional labor" fields she's named, such as childcare and nursing and waitressing, are considered "women's work." Labeling these fields "emotional labor" is dismissive of the fact that many of these fields require schooling and degrees and lots of training. Many nannies and childcare workers have degrees in childcare. They are not simply filling in for mom when she can't be there; they are applying the training they've gotten in child development and implementing specific childcare techniques to enhance the care that mom provides. And everyone knows that nurses go through rigorous training and have a wide range of complex technical skills. Let's not minimize all of that in favor of concentrating on the "emotional labor" of "women's work." The technical and academic training is important, and the hard work and long hours these women put in is so often maligned as just "women's work," and defining it as "emotional labor" doesn't really help in that regard.
I also just think that it sounds like the author hasn't worked a whole lot in her life and maybe doesn't understand that there's some degree of "emotional labor" in almost every field. From making sandwiches at Subway or preparing someone's taxes or working in sales or taking calls at a call center or working in IT, most jobs require "faking it" in order to function. That's why people get paid for it, and that's why it's a job, and it's really not that revolutionary an idea that it's "emotional labor."



Why does acknowledging emotional labor feels like an attack on intelligence and skill?

[We should look at] why we insist on degrading certain women-dominated professions, or why the clinical judgment of nurses so often goes unrecognized by patients and doctors alike, or why acknowledging emotional labor feels like an attack on your intelligence and skill, ...


Summary of "The Managed Heart"
Hochschild offers deep insight into the social actor’s ability to work on emotion in order to present a socially desirable performance, and also into capitalism’s clever appropriation of that skill.
To carry out emotion work is the act of attempting to change an emotion or feeling so that it is appropriate for any given situation. In order to be able to asses the situation correctly, and produce the expected feeling, social guidelines are used: ‘a set of shared, albeit often latent, rules’ (Hochschild, 1983: 268) which help fit together the emotion and the situation ­ for instance, feeling sad at funerals but happy at weddings.
The use of the word ‘work’ to describe the management of emotion stresses that it is something that is actively done to feelings. It is an effort directed towards the production, on call, of ‘suitable’ emotions: ‘I tried not to laugh’, ‘I forced myself not to cry’, ‘I was determined not to show my anger’.
The ability to manage emotion according to the ‘rules’ of the situation emphasises the need to acknowledge the power of the social: as socialised beings actors ‘try to pay tribute to official definitions of situations, with no less than (their) feelings’ (Hochschild, 1979: 257). Emotion work is a gesture in everyday social exchange; the rules exist to ensure social stability and the well being of those involved. Nevertheless, the giving and receiving of emotion work is not always a smooth transaction. The gesture may be carried out half­heartedly, or it may not be carried out at all, either because of ignorance, dislike or complete disregard for the rules of the situation. On the other hand, a person may work harder at emotion management than would normally be expected, especially if they care for the people involved or feel the situation is special.
The acceptance of the view that, within the social framework, actors can ‘do’ varying degrees of emotion work, that there is choice in what, when, how much and to whom they give, allows the introduction of the concept of the ‘gift exchange’. Here Hochschild (1983: 86) questions what happens ‘when deep gestures of exchange enter the market sector.’ When people are no longer free to negotiate their own rate of ‘exchange’, when emotion management becomes another aspect of saleable labour power, then feelings become commodities (Hochschild, 1979: 277).
In her book The Managed Heart (1983) Hochschild introduces the term ‘emotional labour’ to describe emotion management with a ‘profit motive slipped under it’. Her study of air stewardesses highlights how emotion management is being increasingly used by organisations in a ‘service­producing society.’ In this sense, ‘commercial love’ is now becoming an essential part of many routine face­to­face service jobs (Hochschild, 1983: 10).


PDF of the book, "The Managed Heart"

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