Status: Emotionally labored

When rules about how to feel and how to express feeling are set by management, when workers have weaker rights to courtesy than customers do, when deep and surface acting are forms of labor to be sold, and when private capacities for empathy and warmth are put to corporate uses, what happens to the way a person relates to her feelings or to her face? When worked-up warmth becomes an instrument of service work, what can a person learn about herself from her feelings? And when a worker abandons her work smile, what kind of tie remains between her smile and her self? – Arlie Hochschild

Consider the waitress that must smile and be upbeat with each customer.  How does she feel at the end of the day?  What emotional price has been exacted so she can earn her wages?

Emotional labor has been studied in a variety of fields since the term was first coined by Hochschild in 1983.   The emotional component of service work includes the need for workers to figure out the “emotion rules” in the workplace, to learn to how to regulate their emotions in order to follow the rules through “surface acting” and “deep acting.”  Surface acting is akin to plastering a smile on your face.  The toll of emotional labor and its role in worker burnout has been correlated with emotional dissonance.  Emotional dissonance occurs when the emotion rules of the workplace require us to go against our genuine feelings.

In social work, emotional dissonance frequently occurs when our values of social justice, integrity… dignity and worth of a person clash with our employing organization’s demands.  I practice social work because it reflects my heart.  I do the work I do because I believe in it.  I go above and beyond because I believe in helping people.  However, sometimes my efforts go against the bureaucracy of my organization.  Or I simply cannot do the “right thing” because people in power do not agree with me.  An example would be feeling pressured to discharge a patient you know is not ready for discharge…or who doesn’t have a stable place to go.  The emotional dissonance in social work goes beyond the bounds of an agency, however.  When the social infrastructure limits our ability to do the right thing, we feel stymied by gargantuan forces.

We are called to social justice, and yet social change on a macro level feels like an incredibly heavy burden sometimes.

Today I doubted myself.  I felt like my heart was too much into my work.  I wondered if I was wrong to feel so much and so deeply when vulnerability is equated with weakness.  In over 10 years of clinical practice I have never become callous.  I have left high paying jobs that required me to work without my heart.

Today may have been a tough day for my tender heart.  But I have more than heart.  I have strong hands and a nimble mind.  Together, all three allow me to do the emotional work I do.  I know the rules.  I also know how to break them.  Sometimes letting my emotions show is the greatest act of rebellion.  And despite the emotional demands of my work, I will not stop being me.

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4 thoughts on “Status: Emotionally labored

    1. Em Cee…you are positively awesome. This was a tough one…very personal. Loved the construct of emotional labor though…had to move into the academic (and back again to practice). I am so grateful for your words.

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  1. Thank you. I definitely feel this battle too. Sometimes i feel like every conversation I have is about me battling to do the right thing whilst the powers that be stand in my way. It’s exhausting and I’m not sure if I’ll ever win sometimes.

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    1. Humanrevolutionist- I was very upset when I wrote the piece…feeling exactly as you describe. It was interesting to find the concepts of emotional labor and emotional dissonance because I’m now able to at least “put words on” my experience much better and that’s allowed for some sense of freedom.
      I don’t know if we will ever win the battle but at least for myself, I know I just keep trying. It is exhausting, you’re right. Which is why connecting to like minded people helps.
      Thank you for reading…

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