Emo­tional labour tak­ing toll on work­ers

“We pay at­ten­tion to the fil­i­greed pat­terns of feel­ing and their man­age­ment.”

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Heather Mal­lick Heather Mal­lick is a na­tional af­fairs writer for Torstar Syn­di­ca­tion Ser­vices. hmallick@thes­tar.ca.

“Emo­tional labour” is on the way out in cer­tain parts of the econ­omy and roar­ing back in oth­ers. It is how we work now. Its most ba­sic unit is the smile.

It refers to jobs where the skill set is both the ab­sorb­ing and dis­play­ing of emo­tion. It is ubiq­ui­tous. It is drain­ing. In the wrestling ring that is the mod­ern work­place, it leads to burnout.

The great Amer­i­can so­ci­ol­o­gist Ar­lie Russell Hochschild came up with the phrase more than 30 years ago to de­scribe what she saw in the Delta Air­lines “Ste­wardess Train­ing Cen­tre.” Oh, she saw smil­ing. Women — it is still women who do most of this work — were trained to smile, cod­dle, and en­dure on long flights with in­tol­er­a­ble pas­sen­gers.

Lit­tle has changed. A woman be­comes White House press sec­re­tary be­cause she’s peppy and chirpy and tells sto­ries about a lit­tle boy named Pickle. Women have their uses.

In 2012, Hochschild up­dated her great book, The Man­aged Heart: Com­mer­cial­iza­tion of Hu­man Feel­ing, to cover the com­ing wave of au­toma­tion that is killing th­ese jobs and the growth of the per­sonal care sec­tor that is ex­pand­ing them. Boomers need at­ten­dants as they age, but right now they are pay­ing them very lit­tle.

Most in­ter­est­ingly, Hochschild refers to the work of “toxin han­dlers,” who are com­plaints clerks, bankruptcy court per­son­nel, home fore­closers, di­vorce lawyers and park­ing me­ter at­ten­dants. If they had ex­isted then, she would have de­scribed the work of Amer­i­can Air­lines staff who po­lice the com­pany’s Twitter feed, where they cope with peo­ple like Lena Dun­ham.

Dun­ham is the dis­tilled essence of peo­ple who don’t un­der­stand emo­tional labour while abus­ing those who ac­tu­ally do it. A fem­i­nist, she com­plained about two fe­male em­ploy­ees she over­heard hav­ing a pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion that she dis­liked.

“Hi!” she di­rect-mes­saged Amer­i­can. “I heard 2 fe­male at­ten­dants walk­ing talk­ing (an act­ing term) about how trans kids are a trend they’d never ac­cept a trans child and transness is gross ... What if a trans teen was walk­ing be­hind them?”

But a trans teen wasn’t. Dun­ham was.

“At this mo­ment in his­tory we should be teach­ing our em­ploy­ees about love and in­clu­siv­ity,” she told the air­line. Dun­ham re­ported de­tails about the women’s lo­ca­tion that might help Amer­i­can track them down and pun­ish them.

Dun­ham then tweeted the clincher. “Here’s my take­away: th­ese days it’s the lit­tle things. A smile. Of­fer­ing a seat. Re­spect.” It was all very 1962.

Lena Dun­ham is a rich per­son who built her ca­reer on fam­ily con­nec­tions in the New York arts world and then hired the chil­dren of wealthy fa­mous New York­ers to act in her TV se­ries Girls. Yet she lis­tened in on the pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion of two ill-paid women cling­ing to their jobs and snitched.

She re­ferred to “our em­ploy­ees,” she and Amer­i­can ap­par­ently be­ing the rich who can teach work­ers the proper po­lit­i­cal stance (hers) on so­cial is­sues. Worse, she sug­gested they do more emo­tion work, smil­ing and be­ing sweet.

Emo­tional labour is man­ag­ing feel­ings. Amer­i­can Air­lines Twitter staff have to man­age Dun­ham’s feel­ings, as well as their own about Dun­ham. “Thanks for the info, Lena.”

In Shop­pers Drug Mart, I al­ways choose the store clerk over self-ser­vice, even though the store ra­tions its cashiers so as to push you to the ma­chines. Au­toma­tion will win. I used to re­gret this.

But af­ter Dun­ham, I won­der if I’m wrong. If au­toma­tion res­cues work­ers from the emo­tional labour de­manded by Dun­hams, maybe that’s lib­er­at­ing. Bank tell­ers don’t re­sent ATMs, I no­tice. Per­haps their in­ter­ludes with clue­less cus­tomers do not please them.

Most of us, in­clud­ing Uber driv­ers, do work that re­quires emo­tional labour, Hochschild writes. “Eco­nomic his­tory can­not be fully un­der­stood un­less we pay at­ten­tion to the fil­i­greed pat­terns of feel­ing and their man­age­ment.” I’d add “po­lit­i­cal his­tory,” mean­ing the Trump White House.

Emo­tional labour is done by blog­gers who mar­ke­tize their pri­vate life, colum­nists who tell per­sonal sto­ries, preg­nancy sur­ro­gates, nan­nies who block out mem­o­ries of the baby girl they left in their home coun­try and smile grate­fully at a $10 Star­bucks gift card at Christ­mas from the wealthy em­ployer who will fire her for disobe­di­ence, i.e. faulty house­clean­ing.

Emo­tional labour is ex­haust­ing and dam­ag­ing to the soul, be­cause it is a fal­sity, hard to shake in the off-hours. Emo­tion work­ers should get hard­ship pay.

We are all flight at­ten­dants now, work­ing harder, earn­ing less and act­ing as if we couldn’t be hap­pier.

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