The Importance of Emotional Labor
When considering a career, you probably think about what degree or skill set a particular job requires. But seldom do we consider—or sometimes even realize—the kind of emotional skills we need in various occupations.
This came to mind as I accompanied a family member to a doctor’s appointment recently. She had a surgical procedure the week before, and was coming in for her follow-up appointment with the surgeon. After a brief wait, a physician’s assistant came in to let her know that her test results were good and she also let us know that the doctor was running a bit behind. Another patient was struggling with a difficult diagnosis and the doctor was taking some extra time with her.
While a good doctor needs to be trained to properly diagnose and treat patients, and surgeons need to be particularly skilled with their hands, we often evaluate doctors—and other professionals—based on their emotional labor skills. Waiting in a doctor’s office can be frustrating sometimes, but knowing the doctor was helping someone cope with the emotional aspect of their illness raised the esteem of the doctor in our minds, and made us feel grateful for our own good health.
When the doctor came in, she apologized for keeping us waiting, and took her time with us to present the results of the lab work and answered any questions we had. We both left that day feeling that she was a terrific doctor, a conclusion based at least as much on her emotional work--putting us at ease and providing information--as her surgical skills.
Sociologist Arlie Hochschild studied the emotional labor performed by flight attendants and bill collectors in her book, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. She describes how “feeling rules” are built into most occupations, and are sometimes dictated by management. For instance, at the grocery store I shop at regularly, I presume the cashiers are instructed to refer to us by name after we scan our loyalty program cards. They ask us if we found everything okay, and if we need help out with our bags.
I see several of the clerks weekly, and they are very friendly when I am in their line, asking me if I’m having a good weekend, making small talk about the weather, and so forth. I noticed, though, that if a cashier is outside taking a break or shopping for their own groceries, they rarely make eye contact, let alone speak to me to strike up a conversation. It serves as a reminder that even emotional labor can be taxing, and that workers need a break from this too.
Yes, I admit to feeling a tiny bit hurt when someone I feel like I “know” walks by without even saying hello. But I can relate to the challenges of performing emotional labor at work.
One of the biggest challenges I faced as a new professor was learning about the emotional labor involved with the job. As graduate students, we learn about our disciplines, and if we are lucky we learn something about how to give a lecture and grade papers. I thought the biggest challenge to teaching would be knowing enough material for each day of class.
Initially, I was surprised—and often confused—about the amount of emotional labor involved. Students can be angry and confrontational about their grades, and sometimes they suggested that their poor grade was my failure, not theirs.
At first I relied on my analytical training as a social scientist, and set out to prove why they were wrong and I was right. To my surprise, that often led to more anger! I had to work to control my anger in response, and the whole experience was very stressful for me.
Eventually, I had to learn not only how to manage my emotions (when a student seems disrespectful or dismissive or makes a bizarre comment in class), but I also developed ways to try and interact with students that might help diffuse their anger or upset. Rather than take an adversarial stance, I try and start by offering sympathy for their disappointment, and may even share a similar experience I had as a student. This isn’t always a perfect solution, but having some emotional tools—and learning not to take students’ emotional responses personally—have helped me as a professor.
Just as I left the doctor’s office thinking highly of a surgeon because of her ability to relate well with others, it is likely that many students evaluate me as a professor based on the emotional labor I perform as part of my occupation. What other forms of emotional labor do you think professors perform? What kinds of emotional labor do you think you will need to undertake in your own career—or future career?