A Guide to the Psyche.
Sometimes people try for the comfort of others but forget about themselves.
They smile at rude customers at work, laugh at flat jokes at a family feast, or entertain their partner despite fatigue. At first glance, there is nothing wrong with this: it is not difficult, and the other person is pleasant. But regularly suppressing your feelings and replacing them with fake ones is emotional labor that requires resources and leads to burnout. We talk about emotional labor in this new edition of The Mental Health Guide.
What it is
Emotional labor, or emotional maintenance, is trying to create a comfortable environment for those around you by suppressing your real emotions or showing approved and expected emotions instead. This can range from smiling on duty in response to rudeness at work, to carefully concealing fatigue so as not to bother your partner, to avoiding sensitive topics with your parents if your attitude is guaranteed to upset them.
Emotional labor is usually overlooked, even by the performers themselves, not to mention those for whom they are trying. It is believed that there is nothing difficult about pleasing another person. In addition, emotional service is sometimes confused with ordinary politeness, courtesy or care. But its important difference is that providing comfort to others comes at the expense of oneself - suppressing feelings, wasting resources, and sacrificing one's own comfort.
The problem of emotional labor was first brought to our attention by Arlie Hawkshield, a US sociologist, in her 1983 book The Controlled Heart: The Commercialization of Feelings.
Joyful and friendly employees, however insincere, do help the business: customers seem to transmit a positive attitude, their satisfaction with the service grows and they are more likely to spend more and come back again.
Hawkshield believes that because of this, a person's ability to manage emotions is sold as a commodity and regulated, and the performer is forced to disengage from how he or she really feels. Followers of this idea have even coined the term "emotional proletariat" to refer to workers who "sell" in the labor market not their physical strength but their emotions.
But emotional labor is not necessarily only benevolence and a smile that never leaves your face. For example, collectors, on the contrary, have to portray anger and dislike towards debtors.
Already in the 21st century, emotional labor began to be talked about in the context of personal life: when communicating with relatives, partners and friends, people are also often forced to manage their emotions and make sacrifices.
For example, one of the spouses - more often wives - has to take on responsibilities for maintaining the well-being of other family members: listening to and calming the partner; going to parent meetings, which require a lot of emotional dedication; resolving intrafamily conflicts, remembering when older relatives need to be congratulated on holidays. And all this - despite their own fatigue and lack of time.
If you hear these phrases, you're probably expected to provide emotional service:
- "What are you sad about? Smile, or you're ruining the whole atmosphere for us."
- "Remember, the customer is always right."
- "It's no big deal, you've been snapped at. Just don't react."
- "Did you have a hard day? Not as hard as mine anyway!"
- "Why are you arguing again? Is it so hard to keep quiet?"
Why does it arise?
Because of the money. Smiling employees bring the employer more money, so this behavior is encouraged in every way possible, with words and bonuses. Often it is a conscious choice of the employee himself in the hope of a generous tip.
However, being polite and emotional labor are not synonymous. It is possible to do one's job by treating others respectfully while not violating one's own personal boundaries.
Because of inequality. The higher a person's status, the less they need to expend their resources on emotional labor. Arlie Hawkshield wrote that men have a "status screen" that protects them from having to manage their emotions and, therefore, from the negative consequences of such efforts. Women, on the other hand, take on more emotional labor.
Behavioral researcher Jennifer Pierce studied how often law firm employees resorted to emotional labor. It turned out that women had to hide real and show expected emotions more often than men in equal positions. Another study, in which researchers observed nursing staff, found that nurses were less involved in emotional labor than nurses. The reason for this disparity may be stereotypes that prescribe women to be more empathic, malleable, and caring.
Because of fear. Often people have to hide their real emotions in order to keep themselves safe. It is easier for a flight attendant to smile at a drunk, aggressive passenger with whom she is trapped on a plane several thousand feet up than to explain the rules of conduct to her. The ingratiation and demonstration of friendliness are sometimes even referred to as the same natural reaction to a threat as "hit or run.
Emotional labor can also make you tired. Smiling, playing nice and hiding fatigue for fourteen hours, which is how long an average transatlantic flight lasts, is not easy. And when a flight attendant returns home after the flight, he or she will be emotionally exhausted. As Arlie Hawkshield wrote, after a long image of the right emotions, the person will face a period of "emotional deadness," and it will be more difficult to maintain normal relationships with loved ones.
In addition, regular emotional labor and fatigue from it can lead to several negative consequences for mental health at once: it is stress, which risks becoming chronic, overwork, burnout, and depression.
Confusion of feelings arises. Another problem of emotional workers, highlighted by Hawkshield, is disorientation. The worker becomes internally conflicted between his or her own view of the situation and the employer's demand. For example, in life one is used to react to rudeness by fighting back and defending boundaries, but at work one is forced to follow instructions and apologize.
Performers of emotional labor consume more alcohol. American researchers from the University of Buffalo interviewed more than fifteen hundred people involved in areas, where you have to communicate a lot with people. It turned out that respondents who often fake goodwill and hide irritation, consume several times more alcohol than those who do not "fake" emotions or do it less often.
The author of the study, Alicia Grandey, suggests that the reason lies in self-control, weakened by emotional labor. During the work day, people who have to manage their emotions use self-control to the maximum, and after work, they drink to relieve the tension. But since the resource of self-control is already used up, the tired person cannot stop himself from consuming alcohol.
Worsening the situation for women. Professions where one has to deal with emotional maintenance are often predominantly female. But also outside of work, in the personal sphere, more emotional labor is done by women. Although they are already burdened with other invisible and unpaid work - domestic work.
Spoils relationships in the family or couple. If there is no balance in the distribution of emotional labor, the performing partner will accumulate fatigue, irritation and resentment. In addition, some psychologists believe that the preponderance of emotional labor turns a romantic relationship into an almost child-parent relationship: one person is responsible all the time, and the other is waiting for help.
What to do
Emotional labor can and should be shared with a partner. But first you have to convince the person accustomed to receiving and overlooking emotional service that it exists at all. For example, by recalling instances when you provided support and care for his comfort. And then telling him when and how you would like to receive similar support from him, too. And explain why this is important to you.
Journalist and author Gemma Hartley, in her book "Gotcha! or A Strong Woman's Shoulder," claims that several such conversations have helped her and her husband distribute emotional labor more equitably in the family. To make these conversations as effective as possible, Hartley advises not starting them when you're emotionally exhausted or pushed to the limit.
Also, it is necessary to indicate why the partner needs to change their behavior - for example, to set a better example for children.
But it is also important to work on yourself. A person who regularly takes on the role of emotional laborer is usually good at recognizing other people's feelings and needs, but ignore their own.
Start keeping track of the occasions when you do emotional labor, such as offering a compromise, or after asking your partner where something is lying around, rushing to find it. At this point, think about how you really feel and what you'd like to do. By refusing to engage in emotional labor, even gently, you will mark your limits.
But if it is your job to do emotional labor, it is unlikely to give it up, but you can alleviate its consequences, for example, by reflecting on the importance of your work.
Alicia Grandey, who conducted research on the relationship between emotional work and alcohol consumption, observed that drinking was less of a problem for people who considered their work meaningful and important, such as nurses.
You could also try treating customers who are supposed to be greeted with a smile, not as moving parts on an assembly line, but as potential buddies, and personalize communication a bit - note to yourself the unusual things about their appearance, greet a regular guest, and exchange a few phrases that go beyond the communication script.
As one study showed, it's this technique that helps fast food workers not lose their identity and not feel emotionally exhausted.