February 13, 2012

The Importance of Emotional Labor

ksternheimerBy Karen Sternheimer

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 clip_image002doctors—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?


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Emotional labor is involved in every task we undertake. This is why in the same way we often feel physically drained at the end of a long day, we can also feel emotionally drained. There is far more to exercise life than knowledge and physical strength- emotional labor is equally as important. Great article! :)

I agree with the comment above that says emotional labor is involved in every task we undertake. I know in my life I am so drained by the end of the day from doing so much I just don't want to do anything else. I enjoyed reading this article very much!


Great Article

This article is really good and I definitely with the above comment regarding "emotional labot".

Emotional labor is the regulation of emotional displays as part of a work role. Many organizations require employees to manage their emotions in particular ways when interacting with customers. Emotional labor is widespread in organizational life and critical to the success of many service-based organizations. However, emotional labor is gaining light in organizations other than service-based. Organizations not only place strategic importance on service orientation to external customers but also to colleagues and internal clients as well. Emotions at work are an important part of company life.

In my experience, I have had to exercise emotional labor. My current role is training providers and clinicians on electronic health record. I spend time with many providers and clinicians that contain much resistance against my role. When doing this, I have to exercise emotional labor by understanding the emotions that they are feeling. By understanding your customer and delivering your product in the best possible way in order to receive a positive reaction is a way of exercising emotional labor.

It is very important to understand the impact of emotional labor, and how it affects workers. As an organization, you must help your employees understand emotional labor. Mangers need to develop policies and procedures to reduce the negative impacts of emotional labor. By doing these things, emotional labor can improve overall performance and worker satisfaction.

As the fast development of service industries today, the Emotional Labor is getting more and more important for both organizations and individuals. The author gives two particular occupations in her article: doctors and teachers. These are two particular groups important for almost every person in society because they can easily change people's lives and organizations' aspects. Many people make choices for a clinic or a school based on their favors to a doctor or teacher. Since people get no material products from doctors or teachers, it means most of their evaluations are about the professional abilities and emotional labors.

I have some experience about how emotional labors can change customers' choices. My wife used to have her prenatal tests in a local clinic, but we decided to switch to another clinic after four months. The doctor seemed to be super busy every time, so we had to wait for at least half an hour. Then she would do the test and answer my wife's question hurried, then left in a hurry. Maybe she was a nice and professional doctor, but we didn't feel good in the process of communicating with her. Finally we made our another choice.

Emotional labor rules are also important for merchants. Since we are facing similar products with several brands from different stores, the attitude of the salespeople becomes one of the most important factor for us to choose from different merchants. Many people would choose a farther place to purchase goods or to eat just because some warm greetings and zealous helps.

In a word, we all should express positive emotions and smiles during woking cause it means we could receive more when being a customer.

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