The Toll of Emotional Labor

4 minute read

I’ve been doing “emotion work” most of my adult life; a lot of it in assisting the (very) differently abled. Now, with my transition out from direct emotion work approaching rapidly (I’ll have my last scheduled classes next week), I got to thinking.

This line of work is tough shit, dude.

No shit, Sherlock

Now, this is hardly an original thought. I’ve got 5 anecdotes off the top of my head of people transitioning out of caregiving jobs. My wife is a store assistent. I am in school; at least one more of my fellow students has the same motivation as I. I have a colleague who transitioned laterally, from a social advisory role to a more direct caregiving role1.

Asterisk, my faculty magazine, even had the whole last issue related to the concept of “professional care”.

It became particularity clear a couple of days ago, as I was talking to an old acquaintance who shares my line of work. Or, at least he did. He (like I did over the winter of ‘15/’16) had had a stress related breakdown; and had changed fields completely. When the conversation turned to me working nights, he commented that he had done similar things in his career. A night shift, physical toll notwithstanding, is a way to let down your guard as it were.

Lower those shoulders.

Have a little break from the grind.

A tour of the salt mines

The kind of emotion work we are discussing can be quite grueling at times.

We work with and assist the most vulnerable and fragile of citizens. We act as a filter and a bastion against the outside world - a world that can be quite overwhelming for even the most staunch stoic. We help them navigate their wishes and sometimes conflicting desires. We try to ensure their days have stability, structure, and purpose2.

But this can also entail conflict. For example; when an immediate desire (such as visiting family) is not immediately able to be fulfilled, reactions to disappointment and frustrations can be… counterproductive. Self-harm and/or externally oriented outbursts, as we euphemistically describe actions that might for all the world seem like physical assault of our bodies.

And thus we must act. Do we flee? Do we embrace? Do we play possum? Do we rebuke? These, and many more possibilities for action, may be equally appropriate. Yet we expect of ourselves, both personally and collectively, to be able to let this, too, to pass. And when all is said and done, to turn the other cheek; maybe even offer a hug and comforting words.

In short; as Hochschild3 described in 1979: Our emotional labor — the suppression of unwanted feeling; or the evocation of desired feeling — has been commoditized, as we trade it on the labor market.

Whichever action we chose (in this context, even inaction is an action), it is incumbent on us to reflect on and consider them. Could this be optimized? Could a similar conflict be avoided in the future by choosing different interventions? This sometimes extends to trying to gauge actions five, ten or fifteen minutes in advance, based on careful reading of the room.

Turns out; this is somewhat exhausting. Add to this personnell shortages; reports to write; food to prepare; meetings to attend; and coffee to drink4.

And yet we persist

So why keep it up? The answer, for some, is… not to. I, for instance, moved to the night shift, and then grad school simultaneously. Granted, I wish to put my continuing education to use in furthering the efforts of those still on the front lines of the welfare state. Others burn out. Some change careers; some change workplaces; some scars of the soul never heal5.

But some stick it out. The reasons range, I presume, from the practical (this is the job I’ve got, and money is nice, i guess) to the ideological (the premise and promise of the welfare state demands that we step into the breach!), which seems like a plausible continuum6. Motivations may well be more mundane, like a welcoming smile, or a heartfelt welcome. Or a feeling that the sword’s edge was successfully balanced, with no one slipping and falling today.

There are some who posit that work such as this should be rewarding in it’s own right7. To plant a seed and let it grow, as it were. I call bullshit — I do not believe the world can ever send as much back as is required of us to give. Although there is value in completing a difficult task, and doing so competently. A job well done, with a support network to back it up, both professionally and privately. In particular, giving room for self care, which is explicitly brought up in the aforementioned issue of Asterisk. I routinely politely ignored my colleagues at break time — not because I didn’t like them; I was simply peopled out, and needed to stare at my phone for 30 minutes.

  1. In Denmark, there is a distinction between a socialrådgiver; who typically is affiliated with social offices, and (social)pædagoger, who chracteristically work in street programs or assisted living/work programs. The connotations of the English term scial worker maps somewhat imprecisely to both professions, depending on context. 

  2. Yes, this implies an uneven power dynamic in the relationship. See my previous post for my thoughts on this issue. 

  3. Hochschild, A. R. (1979). Emotion Work, Feeling Rules, and Social Structure. American Journal of Sociology, 85(3), 551–575. https://doi.org/10.1086/227049 

  4. Some days, there is not enough coffee. 

  5. PTSD is a recurring theme in the union magazine. 

  6. Now there’s a research idea. 

  7. Even to the point of arguing that the wages be lower.