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.
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?
- How companies force ’emotional labor’ on low-wage workers (tv.msnbc.com)
- Why Faking Enthusiasm Is The Latest Job Requirement (fastcompany.com)
- Emotional Labor (sippingnpaintinghampden.wordpress.com)
- The Enforced Happiness Of Pret A Manger (newrepublic.com)
- Grin and Abhor It: The Truth Behind ‘Service with a Smile’ (talkingunion.wordpress.com)
- The Importance of Emotional Labor (everydaysociologyblog.com)
- Starbucks With a Smile, and a Shot of Politics (religiondispatches.org)