Emotional Labor

Who’s Really the Boss?

Power house mechanic working on steam pump
Photograph by Lewis Hine, Wikimedia

It sounds like a capitalist’s dream come true, monetizing your feelings. Except it’s already come true. There are many jobs that include emotional labor.

Sociologist, Arlie Hochschild was perhaps the first to write, back in 1983, about emotional labor in her book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. In her book, she used the example of flight attendants. Your flight attendant doesn’t get paid just to push that cart up and down the aisle. Nor is she paid only to give the safety demonstration no one watches. Her job is to maintain safety during flights by keeping the passengers calm. She does this by laboring to keep herself calm, even when she can look out the window and see an engine burst into flames.

There are many other jobs known for their emotional labor. My own profession, psychotherapist, is one of them. You expect your shrink to be interested in what you’re saying and suspend disdain. If he’s not interested, he should at least pretend to be. It’s the pretending that counts as emotional labor. If he’d feel that way anyway, it shouldn’t count as work.

Providing emotional labor is costly. It’s stressful to deny your feelings and put on the required face. I’m tired after a day of shrinking heads even though all I did was sit there and listen to people pour their guts out. But the worst of it is how alienated I could get from my own feelings. I might not know how I feel anymore because I must feel a certain way for a living.

There are two ways of laboring emotionally. The first is to look as though you’re feeling a certain feeling, even when you’re not feeling it. A good waitress greets all customers warmly, with a smile, even when they’re a bad tipper and she wishes they sat in someone else’s station. Under the fake smile, she’s seething.

The second way is for the waitress to convince herself she’s really happy to see the bad tipper, even when she has no reason to be. This may require some deliberate self-talk on her part. She’ll tell herself that she’s not waiting tables just for the money, she also likes people and is getting plenty of exercise. She’ll console herself that the bad comes along with the good. She didn’t exalt when a good tipper comes in, so she shouldn’t frown when a bad one does. She’ll find a way to believe that a bad tipper is only that way because of strained financial circumstances and, if you accounted for a low income, he’s really more generous than most good tippers. Or, like a method actor, she’ll imagine she’s greeting a long lost friend and channel that friendliness into a genuine smile.

It turns out* that the second way is less stressful for the employee. When the server doesn’t believe the feeling she’s trying to portray, she’ll get burned out faster than when she does. Talking herself into authenticity also has the added benefit of giving the server a more sincere looking smile.

This is bad news for those who depend on feelings to navigate their way around the world. The feeling of dread the server gets when the bad tipper sits in her station is a functional, necessary feeling. Additionally, getting bad service is something bad tippers should expect. Maybe they’ll learn their lesson. Similarly, you should be ashamed of an inferior product if you’re a salesperson. If you’re a flight attendant, you should be annoyed at the drunk who’s causing a ruckus on your flight. When I’m providing psychotherapy for a child molester, I shouldn’t forget that what he’s doing is harmful, no matter how non-judgmental I must seem to get him to talk. It’s important to be in touch with your true feelings because feelings are like the idiot lights in a car. They inform you of the state of things. If you cover the idiot lights with duct tape, you won’t get a warning before the engine blows up and you’ll be the real idiot.

Emotional labor has become a feminist’s issue because it’s most easily seen in occupations that are stereotypically female: flight attendant, food server, childcare, nursing, receptionist, cashier, and therapist. Employers naturally turn to women to fill those roles, partly because the jobs are labor intensive and female workers are cheaper, but also because we expect women to be more empathetic and have greater emotional intelligence than men. All this is true, and women should be paid as well as men, but emotional labor is not just a women’s issue. It’s found in every occupation in which workers are called upon to do something they shouldn’t want to do.

A soldier has every reason to be terrified when people are coming to kill him. He must act brave, anyway. That’s emotional labor. A surgeon must overcome inhibitions before he can stick a knife into a patient and dismiss his disgust with what comes out. That’s emotional labor, even though the surgeon may have a poor bedside manner when the patient is awake. When I was a construction worker, I couldn’t pay attention to how hot it was, how tired I was, or how much I was hurting. These feelings would get in the way of getting the job done. Instead, I told myself how strong and dedicated I was to finishing what I had promised to do.

Traditionally, there’s a division of labor when it comes to emotional labor. Women are called to be warm, friendly, and empathetic when they are not. Men are called to be brave, tough, and rational when they are not. Both require labor and both extract a cost. We make a grave mistake when we recognize one without the other. Emotional labor is not only a feminist’s issue, it’s a worker’s issue. Come to think of it, it’s even more than a worker’s issue. Emotional labor is the work every superego does to help you conform to the norms of society.

I’m convinced that the troubles of a huge portion of my caseload can be traced back to the emotional labor they must do. It’s obvious when people say they hate their jobs. They loathe the rude customers, the tyrannical bosses, the punishing working conditions, and the unethical demands. Mostly they hate having to pretend they like them. They rarely do anything about their jobs, though. They often don’t believe they have a choice. They are so accustomed to the bullshit, they have been so brainwashed, or they have been so oppressed for so long they believe they can’t negotiate with their workplace. Consequently, when they start to fall apart, they blame themselves and reach for a pill or a psychological hack to make them feel better. These methods will make them feel better when nothing is better. They just turn them into willing sheep to be slaughtered for profit.

The worse effect of emotional labor is the hidden one that accrues to those who cut themselves off from their true feelings. This is what’s behind the woman who can’t say no and the man who can’t cry. It’s why men are from Mars and women are from Venus. The inability men and women have to talk to one another can be attributed to the particular type of emotional labor each is called to do. When we accuse the patriarchy of instituting emotional labor, we allow capitalism and colonialism to escape without blame.

I don’t want to leave the superego off the hook either. You may remember from undergrad psychology class that the superego is the part of you that tries to control the id, the animal within you, including your feelings. The superego is supposed to be a reasonable check on the worse your irrationalities can offer, but for many people the superego is as cruel, inflexible, and punctilious as the id is unruly. A third part is needed, called the ego, to mediate between the two.

This arrangement between the superego, id, and ego can give us a clue about how to manage the demands of emotional labor. When the waitress buries her resentment and smiles at the bad tipper, she’s let her superego take over. Her righteous impulses to penalize the bad tipper are thrown in a dungeon and locked up. This is what is known as being out of touch with her feelings. Locked in the dungeon long enough, her feelings will fester till they get a chance to escape. This is what we call burn out.

On the other hand, if she gives vent to every feeling, she will not last long in her job. The answer is to develop a part of her that can monitor the situation for when the demands of the workplace become unreasonable. This part, the ego, rather than bury the impulses of the id under a cloak of denial, should acknowledge them and, if it’s necessary to keep her job, set them aside in some place in her mind where she doesn’t act on them, but doesn’t forget them, either. She looks for times when the ego can mediate between the two or come up with a solution that can satisfy them both. Ideally, she’ll advocate that her employer pay her better, so she’s not so dependent on tips. Less than ideally, she’ll smile at the bad tipper and spit in his food.

My own ego gets involved in my work, too. I’ve survived thirty-five some years as a shrink without getting burned out and without losing touch of my own feelings by calling upon a healthy ego. If I have a boring client, for instance, I will often let her go on as if I was interested for a while. She might even believe I am interested, if only because boring people fail to pick up on the cues of others. However, I won’t repress my boredom. I’ll examine it to see if my boredom is really more about me than it is about anything she’s doing. I’ll talk about it with trusted colleagues to get their help in getting to the bottom of my boredom. Sometimes, what I call boredom has more to do with my own insecurities and need for attention. However, if she really is boring, I’ll set my observation aside to be used later. I’ll wait for a moment when I can bring it up in a way she can profitably hear. The fact that I am bored may have a lot to do with her troubles. She probably bores others, also; so, they stop listening to her. She probably bores herself, and so is stuck in a rut she has barely identified.

They actually teach this method in shrink school. It’s called using your countertransference. Far from laboring to control or dismiss a feeling, it’s a method of taking my feelings seriously, but not letting them run the show. It still takes work, though, so I guess you can still call it emotional labor, but it’s productive labor, so, at the end of the day, both I and the client are better off than if I had just rejected the difficult feeling.

It’s probably a good thing when a flight attendant can project calmness in an emergency. But at other times, like when a passenger has become a belligerent drunk, she should do something other than smile pretty. She can use her homegrown annoyance to tell him to be quiet. Letting him know she means business.

Soon, I’ll explore a specific kind of emotional labor, called Hermeneutic Labor, which has come to bedevil intimate relationships.

*·  Grandey, A.A. (2003). “When “the show must go on”: Surface acting and deep acting as determinants of emotional exhaustion and peer-rated service delivery”. Academy of Management Journal. 46 (1): 86–96.

·   Hülsheger, U.R.; Schewe, A.F. (2011). “On the costs and benefits of emotional labor: A meta-analysis of three decades of research”. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. 16 (3): 361–389.

·  Qi, Xingliang; Ji, Shuang; Zhang, Jing; Lu, Wanyong; Sluiter, Judith K.; Deng, Huihua (2016-11-01). “Correlation of emotional labor and cortisol concentration in hair among female kindergarten teachers”. International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health. 90 (1): 117–122.

Published by Keith R Wilson

I'm a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor in private practice with more than 30 years experience. My newest book is The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. I recently published a workbook connected to it titled, How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again. I also have another self help book, Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments. I’ve also published two novels, a satire of the mental health field: Fate’s Janitors: Mopping Up Madness at a Mental Health Clinic, and Intersections , which takes readers on a road trip with a suicidal therapist. If you prefer your reading in easily digestible bits, with or without with pictures, I have created a Twitter account @theshrinkslinks. MyFacebook page is called Keith R Wilson – Author.

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