The Labor of Emotion

JoAnna Bennett

JoAnna Bennett, O’Brien Communications Group

4 October 2018

The best definition of emotional labor I could find was from Wikipedia:

Emotional labor is the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfill the emotional requirements of a job.

If you’d like to Google the term, you’ll find about 127 million results, most having to do with marital issues and gender inequality. Before you get worked up on either side, please remember you are human. So your cognitive biases will get the best of you. Your sneaky little in-group bias will hit — paired with that all-knowing confirmation bias — and you’ll gather all the information you think you need to know, feel all the feelings you believe you need to feel, and stand firm in your correctness, knowing your side of the argument is right.

A More Pragmatic Interpretation

When I first read the definition, I’ll have to admit to being thankful that I don’t experience an abundance of emotional labor in my line of work. Sure, sometimes clients can be aggravating, but I work from home. It’s much easier to manage emotions via email and phone than in person. But think about customer service representatives, correction officers, or nurses. The first must regularly encounter agitated and unhappy people, at times be cursed at, and still have to be polite and conscientious. And the latter two … I can’t imagine what they see daily. It takes a special person to go back into those types of environments knowing the struggles ahead.

Looking at this from a completely different angle, I see a salesman from a sub-par software company successfully selling a product even though the company hasn’t had a successful implementation in more than five years. What kind of emotional labor is that person working through? Or is it easier to tackle when the sale comes with a hefty commission check? What if nurses received increased hourly pay for patients that were extra nasty? Or if correction officers got bonuses each time inmates attacked them?

Emotional labor is an unavoidable human experience. And it’s not something that can be evenly balanced or evenly compensated for between different people and jobs. If you’re saddled with a heavy load of emotional labor, be aware and be ready to deal with it head on. And maybe if you’re one of the lucky ones, you’ll be compensated for the work.