Emotional Labor

August 13, 2013

By Gabrielle. Gorgeous image of the James family from Kinfolk Magazine.

Do you have a job that requires you to smile and feign happiness? (And here is where every mom in the world is nodding vehemently!) When you consider, as this article notes so brilliantly, that we engage in the buying and selling of feelings nearly every day, it’s kind of mind-blowing. Not to mention exhausting.

There are companies – like the UK-based fast food chain Pret A Manger — who base bonuses on enforced happiness. Even Apple manages happiness, forbidding employees to use negative words like unfortunately.

But here’s the sticky bit: At a Queensland hospital, for instance, the male midwife is considered a kind of empathetic rockstar, while his female counterparts are simply expected to be caring. The result? The women don’t receive as many accolades and, perhaps, not as much compensation.

What do you think about emotional labor? Is it stressful to be expected to be happy and suppress your true feelings in your workplace? Maybe especially when your workplace is also your home? Or is the term an overreaction to what was once called plain old courtesy? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one!

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Melissa L. August 13, 2013 at 11:10 am

Courtesy & politeness are different from being expected to feel enthusiastic, happy, or emotionally invested in your workplace. It’s great to develop friendships at work that result in true caring, and to enjoy the work you do. But it’s exhausting to have to behave as if you are jazzed up every moment of every day. I prefer to be quietly productive, so I wouldn’t enjoy having having my outward appearance of happiness be a metric for my work. It should be enough to feel contented.


2 B August 13, 2013 at 2:25 pm

I am an elementary school teacher and I think this describes why my job is so exhausting. Whenever I am extranet moody in the evening and my husband questions it I say “I’ve been fake nice all day and I am tired.”


3 Martha August 13, 2013 at 3:28 pm

Huh. I’ve definitely experienced the extra gratefulness for a male nurse who was very kind whereas I didn’t give much thought to the female nurses’ kindness. That’s interesting.

I think Chik-fil-A manages kindness, too. It makes me a little uncomfortable.


4 Melissa S August 13, 2013 at 6:52 pm

I think, particularly when you’re your own boss, it’s possible to drop the mask and just feel what you feel and perhaps even express it.

It’s a temporary condition and being able to see your progress as you work through an emotionally tough spot feels affirming to me.

That said, in the work place, now that I work in an office…

When I went through my divorce I think having to keep it together at the office saved my life. I look back at that time (when tears were nearly everyday; hidden in the bathroom) and I think if I had given in to that emotion fully it would have taken me a lot more time to recover from that really really hard time.

So perhaps there’s room for both sides but it’s much more complex when you’re your own boss.

(PS: If you’re struggling with the move or anything but not able to say that I want you to know that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed. And if anyone has the tools to get past that feeling it’s you.)


5 Jennifer August 13, 2013 at 7:12 pm

Teachers. We do this every day. I remember being told in teacher training, “You make the weather in your classroom.”
So. Much. Pressure.
It is true, to some extent, but I think there is also something valuable in showing kids how to persevere even when you are not feeling well/in a bad mood. How to persevere AND not take it out on other people.


6 danielle downey August 13, 2013 at 8:58 pm

I believe in leaving baggage outside the door when you enter the work environment, especially as a teacher. However, I feel the positive language which corporate environments foster, the suppression of any comment or sentiment deemed negative is unnatural. Going against nature never seems wise. When negative sentiments or expressions are relevant to the situation at hand (not due to last night’s fight with a partner or the morning’s hangover cloud) they could be heard and dealt with in a productive manner. As a wise mentor shared with me, when complaining bring at least three solutions to the table. And if your baggage is too heavy for all of this, well, that’s another story.


7 valerie August 13, 2013 at 9:58 pm

I’ve noticed as a mom that when I really don’t feel like being happy with one of my children, that is usually an indication that she or he needs me to be happy or at least OK with him or her at that moment. That doesn’t mean I gloss over a wrong-doing or sugar-coat a consequence. It just means I need to handle the situation in a mature way. With love.
In a work situation, ideally you ought to be able to point out error professionally or allow others to see your point of view, but I realize that’s not always the case. Still, I feel in a professional job, you ought to act professionally or “courteous” even when emotionally drained. I actually had a coworker quit our job during a life crisis because we all cared too much. It was too hard to be around people who truly cared and were not just indifferent.


8 Melissa L. August 14, 2013 at 7:45 am

“As a wise mentor shared with me, when complaining bring at least three solutions to the table.”

Danielle, this is great and I am going to use this in my family. It’s important to me that my kids learn to express their feelings & opinions but also that they be problem-solvers, not just problem-namers. One of my children needs encouragement to find more than one possible solution [I'm afraid he gets that from me : (]


9 Dawn August 14, 2013 at 7:55 am

Happens all the time. We are taught to call mistakes “opportunities for improvement” and instructed on how to make every experience a positive one.


10 Gabriele August 14, 2013 at 8:04 am

I teach piano every weekday afternoon for four hours. I know my personality affects what each child feels at the lesson. When I don’t feel like being chipper I prepare by looking at my teaching notes. I have a picture of each student at my piano. This little exercise brings me back to compassion and caring.


11 Robin August 14, 2013 at 9:10 am

At my retail job (high-end housewares/furniture), we were encouraged to be happy to be there, because we create our guests’ experience. I think we all understand that a visit to a beautiful store can be ruined by bad or rude customer service. My approach was to accept this as a personal challenge. Why shouldn’t I be happy and enthusiastic to be there? For me, “fake it ’till you make it” really works. If I’ve had a tough one before work, I can leave that behind and have a personal “do over”. I read a study showing that smiling when you don’t feel like it can actually make your brain happier. It works for me, and in turn, I am a better employee. While my goal is to be genuine with my customers, I can choose to be genuinely happy to be there.


12 Joy August 14, 2013 at 12:54 pm

I work with at-risk teens all day in an academic setting, trying to get them to turn in their allotted amount of work and listening to all of their excuses as to why they don’t have it–it is so incredibly draining to stay positive all day with these students, even though that is what they desperately need! If I hear one more fake dead grandma story…


13 Erin August 14, 2013 at 8:53 pm

Teaching, especially preschool-2nd grade, requires you to not only appear happy, but calm and patient no matter what happens. Having a bad day? Better check your attitude at the door, or things will only get worse, fast.


14 Mina August 14, 2013 at 9:19 pm

I’m a high school teacher and we are definitely expected to, not necessarily be “happy happy” all the time. But, we are expected to leave our problems “at home” so to speak. I think it’s simply just a matter of being professional. I also believe that negative breeds negative and positive breeds positive. So being around children is especially sensitive, since they are like sponges and will pick up any energy they’re around. So, I say keeping it positive isn’t just good for us, but for those around us as well. Plus, there’s research on the fact that smiling more actually does make you feel happier. : ) So, why wait to feel happy to smile? Just smile and feel happier! Voila!


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