The wearying, growing toll of “emotional labor”

emotion icon
emotion icon (Photo credit: Łukasz Strachanowski)

It’s a phrase some of you might not know, even as your every workday includes it:

Does your job require you to manage your emotions, or the way you express those emotions, to meet organizational expectations? This is called ’emotional labor.’ People in a service-oriented role – hotel workers, airline flight attendants, tour operators, coaches, counselors – often face the demands of emotional labor.

Arlie Hochschild created the term ’emotional labor’ in 1983 to describe the things that service workers do that goes beyond physical or mental duties. Showing a genuine concern for customers’ needs, smiling, and making positive eye contact are all critical to a customer’s perception of service quality. These types of activities, when they’re essential to worker performance, are emotional labor.

When you face angry clients, or people who are generally unpleasant, emotional labor can be particularly challenging. A large part of that challenge comes from the need to hide your real emotions, and continue to ‘smile and nod your head,’ even when receiving negative or critical feedback.

Companies often place a great deal of strategic importance on service orientation, not only to external customers but to colleagues and internal clients as well. While emotional labor is applicable to many areas of business, the consequences are probably greatest in traditional service roles. However, in an increasingly service-oriented marketplace, it’s important to understand how emotional labor affects workers, and what organizations can do to support and manage any issues.

People who serve others in customer-facing jobs — like waitress/er, bartender, nurse, flight attendant, public transit workers and retail staff, to name only a few — shoulder this significant burden with every shift.

When I took a part-time retail job, which I describe candidly in my 2011 memoir, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, I didn’t really get how hard emotional labor is. Now I do!

Part of it is the assumption, if you work in a service job like retail — and a snotty assumption increasingly made in a time of growing income inequality — that the person serving you has never attended or graduated college or traveled or can speak foreign languages. (All of which our staff of 15 could or had.) We really didn’t need to be spoken to sloooooowly in words of one syllable, as we so often were.

And then there was the bad-customer behavior — which we were expected to ignore, or greet with indulgent smiles — The tantrums! The insults! The whining and finger-snapping and eye-rolling.

With a grateful sigh, I left retail work on December 18, 2009.

English: Managing emotions - Identifying feelings
English: Managing emotions – Identifying feelings (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But my writing business is pushing many of the same buttons.

A few recent examples from my freelance writing life:

— The young PR official from a company I’m profiling who Tweets my visit, (alerting all my staff and freelance competitors to my story), and then, (oh, irony), accused me hotly of “betraying” him by finding and interviewing sources he hadn’t pre-selected, approved and overseen. His naivete in tweeting leaves me shocked and furious, but in front of him, I pretend it’s not that big a deal because I really need to get this story finished.

–An editor assigned me five stories then told me she was leaving her position the following week. I felt a mix of confusion, annoyance and fear I might not get paid without her there; instead, I simply wished her well in her next project. (And, funny thing, the final two fell through, and cost me income I expected to earn. I did get paid, six weeks after invoicing.)

— A lawyer, a partner in a major D.C. firm, a story source, talks for 30 minutes — then tells me “this is all off the record.” In an email, he insists I print every word as he wrote it to me later, a promise I make but know I can’t keep because I don’t edit these stories. I’m now scared he’ll make my life hell, annoyed at his lack of understanding of how journalism works and sick to death of people threatening me!

Technically, I don’t have to do this for any employer (that would be me!), but I do…because maintaining my composure in the face of endless bullshit, no matter what I actually feel about it, is still just as essential to keeping sources cooperative, getting editors to answer/return my calls and emails and making sure I actually get paid.

Being self-employed offers no protection from emotional labor! We’re all in the service industry now, kids.

Do you perform emotional labor in your job?

How does it affect you?

23 thoughts on “The wearying, growing toll of “emotional labor”

  1. Nicely put! I’m a server at a snazzy local restaurant, and our staff is incredible. A few people have master degrees, most everyone has a 4-year degree, and several are fluent in multiple languages. The majority of the staff has been there for over 8 years. In once case, a bartender has worked for the business for 24 years. Why? Because we like it. Well, most of us.
    There are days that I really want to say what I’m thinking instead of smiling, and when dropping a beer on someones lap is a dream instead of a nightmare just because I’m having a momentary tantrum that someone just snapped their fingers or whistled at me. (No, I’ve never done that, but I wish…)
    I listened to my Psychology professor explain to the class that servers don’t really multitask because we’re doing the same repetitive tasks over and over again. Clearly, she’s never waited tables. She’s never dealt with a couple where the woman is staring at your boobs as if they’re food while the husband blindly (or perhaps, not so blindly) orders a double scotch. Or had a table that moans every time you check on them, not because you’re dreadful, but because they’re doing ‘something’ under the table. Yes. That happened.
    I’m ranting. Sorry, but I worked today! 😉

  2. Julia

    As usual, you hit on a hot topic. For so many, the line between work and life is blurred. Work is a job, right? Wait, wait, not so fast. Not when you are supposed to be working what you are passionate about. Which means you might do that work with little compensation. And also perform work that is not your job> This is so complicated. And may have something to do with traditional work done by women (who have never worked 9 to 5).

  3. jmalhoytlee

    No one does emotional labor quite like a teacher. Hochschild’s work is a true classic that gave a voice at the time to flight attendents…and other women who are obligated to engage in emotional labor. Its a must read, in my humble opinion.

      1. jmalhoytlee

        I want to compliment you on your blog. It is an enjoyable read, and it makes my “wheels” turn. Keep going! 🙂

  4. Ho boy, just published a post on an encounter at the PD. In a PD absolutely no patron is happy to be there – either something bad has happened to them, or they have done something bad they are being held accountable for, which no one likes. There is a thin aura of hostility to most interaction which is wearying, and the subject matter is often hard to deal with. I’ve held up alright, but I’m grateful to be moving on from it – especially since some coworkers don’t help with the hostility!

    1. Sounds like retail. In my book, I call it arriving pre-pissed….their hostility has nothing to do with you personally, but, hey, you’re right there so you get to be their punching bag. UGH.

  5. Great topic, and so true pretty much anywhere and in any profession as long as you’re dealing with other human beings. I was talking with a friend the other day about how employees are sometimes told by management to incentivize (sp?) bad behavior among clients by giving discounts, perks, and other things to clients who throw tantrums, get upset, etc. That just seems to encourage the whole problem and cause more emotional labor for the employees! I experienced that within my small stint at retail as well…oy.

  6. It’s interesting because in my job with the police you need to be polite and courteous to victims and people who are co-operative after committing an offense. However, there is a release (albeit a measured one) when offenders decide to struggle while being taken into custody of when people try acting in ways to intimidate police (eg gang members). However, my 20 years in retail there were days when I got home completely exhausted mentally because of dealing with difficult customers. Eventually though I did perfect the skill of remaining calm and nice in the face of screaming idiots which of course only angers them more, and that skill has served me well when dealing with people when I’m working for the police.

    1. I’m impressed!

      Not sure if you’ve read Malled but I describe, in sad detail, the day I lost it totally and ran to hide in the stockroom…I had already given my 2 weeks’ notice anyway but was done. It was a scary lesson in how screwed up people can be, what they expect others to absorb (because….?) and my own limitations. I saw that for many people the only way to stay sane was to tune out. I didn’t want to do that, but the price of being (for me) authentic and emotionally present was too high.

      1. I’m planning on moving in a couple weeks so I’ve refrained from purchases that would require me to move the stuff with me when I go. But Malled is definitely on my list of books to read, I’ve heard a couple of the radio interviews you did and sounds very interesting and I’m looking forward to reading it. I’ve always told my employees the following.The customer is frequently wrong (saying this you can see the emotion release in people when I tell them that, they tend to take a more relaxed posture and some will even chuckle), that doesn’t mean that we don’t try to accommodate all requests that are within the framework of the companies policies. When the customer comes in with an unreasonable complaint or request we have to remain calm and friendly, fighting with them will only escalate the situation. Remember if they walk in and their in a bad mood it is unlikely that anything you do is going to truly alleviate that, but if you let them get to you they will ruin your day and in that they might some satisfaction, let’s all try hard not to give them that. I or the assistant manager (when I had one) will handle all complaints and issues while I’m here unless you’ve been told not to disturb me. (which was very rare). If I’m not here do your best, and refer them to me, give them the number to store and let them know my hours. Telling them this seemed to help with their stress and backing them in the store regarding policies (with both customers and the company) also had a major impact on morale I also made it a point to clean the bathrooms once and awhile, taking on the worst job occasionally was a another way of boosting morale (it also made sure it got done when I assigned it to someone)…

      2. One of the things smart managers do is protect their people! There is nothing worse than making crap money — than taking shit from customers AND being paid badly to be treated badly. Enough!

        I have a theory that people who thrive in retail — and sell a ton — really enjoy being around other people. (I do. I did.) But there is a flip side to that enjoyment, which is if you mess with someone who genuinely comes to work happy to deal with others that’s a skill you are devaluing and allowing customers to de-value. It’s taken for granted that “it’s your job” but some people are much better at being outgoing and helping others and they need to be treated with respect for bringing that A-game with them.

        You’ve seen it. You know what I mean! 🙂

  7. I feel exhausted for you. And me. And everyone else. Also, I’m very tired of this ‘lawsuit’ culture… its invading Canada as well, perhaps not as powerfully as the U.S. but it makes it more difficult to feel free in conversation, never knowing what might come back to bite you.

  8. I waited tables over the summer which definitely taught me a lot about emotional labor! It’s an industry everyone should have to work in at one point or another. Every time I’m at a restaurant and a friend says something about slow service or a problem with the restaurant, I always have to defend the waiter now! People often don’t realize the things that are out of the control of the person serving them. I still can’t believe how people talk to people in the service industry sometimes!

    1. So glad you have this wisdom — I never understood until I did that job how little control many workers have over the environment and yet how much BS they have to take when customers are disappointed. It’s terribly unfair!

  9. With teachers acting as motivators, inspirer, counsellors and critics for the students, and also PR for the private educational institutions in Dubai and India, I felt it was one of the most draining jobs I had worked it. Having worked in Product design Industry, and equal hours, the teaching felt more taxing, and I can relate it to ’emotional labour’. There is also a lot of Parents one needs to deal with, esp. with students that fail to show up to class /assignments, and their parents turn up to ask ‘how is it our angel has failed’… emotions run high all the time with a bunch of teens…

  10. Hi,

    I survived this and systemic workplace bullying while bereaved under a toxic HR dept and the CEO of Pret A Manger. But I am ill now and still unable to work.

    I write extensively about my experience, but the public and even press don’t want to know about it, especially in the UK.

    But I keep contacting anyone who covers subjects like emotional labour, bullying etc.

    Thank you for reading.


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