What Emotional Labour is Telling You About Your Organisation

Increased diversity in the workplace promises multiple benefits but brings with it complex challenges. Subtle, unacknowledged prejudice and discrimination are common but difficult to manage. The result is emotional labour and it says as much about the organisation as it does about the individual.
Bevan Rees
Aug 01, 2019

In Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Hours, Mrs Brown is a young woman playing the role of dutiful mother and wife.

It is 1949, and Mrs Brown’s days are defined by the social expectations of middle-class post-war America: care for your children, keep a tidy home, support your husband.

Mrs Brown desperately wants to feel fulfilled in this mode. She wants to fit the polite apron-wearing mould. But she doesn’t, and as the fabric of her life begins to fray, she struggles to maintain her best defence: a constant smile.

That smile is the definitive marker of a person experiencing emotional labour (EL). It is not genuine; it is not joyful. It is a façade erected to maintain the illusion that everything is all right when really it isn’t.

Humans aren’t machines

Mrs Brown is a pertinent example. Recently, popular conversations about emotional labour have focused on the home, particularly the stress experienced by women in shouldering the load of domestic duties.

This is an important issue to acknowledge and confront, but it stretches the original meaning of emotional labour.

When sociologist Arlie Hothschild first wrote about EL in 1983, she did so in the professional context and saw it as the effort that an individual puts into managing her emotions and behaviour to keep others happy, even if those people have made her unhappy.

According to Hothschild, it is not about physical labour and household chores; it is about the psychological and emotional work required to keep up appearances.

Traditional examples of people that are vulnerable to emotional labour are those in service sectors or client-facing roles; think salespeople, waitrons, air stewards, or members of the hospitality industry.

Humans aren’t machines, but they’re often treated as such by the role they’re inclined to play at work.

Individuals working in these areas are often required to betray their real emotions in favour of a false smile that ostensibly keeps customers happy and coming back for more.

However, constant suppression of authenticity decreases personal wellbeing and dehumanises personal interactions.

“Humans aren’t machines,” says Jonathan Richards, Founder & CEO of Breathe, “but they’re often treated as such by the role they’re inclined to play at work.”

Under the radar

As diversity has increased in the workplace, emotional labour has begun to take on a new meaning, especially for minorities and marginalised communities.

Karen Bird, Business Manager at Catering24, points out, “Overt discrimination is illegal in the workplace, […] but throwaway comments which may seem harmless can sometimes have a prejudicial element, such as sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, or ableism.”

Sharon Looney, Chief HR Officer at CoreHR, offers some examples:

“In my experience, much of it shows up in language more than actions: ‘Are you comfortable working for a manager younger than you’, ‘I’m surprised to see a male application for an office administrative role’, or ‘Can your wife not take the Force Majeure Leave instead?’”

These subtle forms of prejudice regularly go unrecognised. The person who is undermined doesn’t voice his feelings for fear of rocking the boat or making the speaker feel uncomfortable; the speaker is often unaware of the real impact of her words.

Silence makes emotional labour a tricky issue for HR and leaders to diagnose and address, but its presence can’t be ignored.

Here are three things that emotional labour may be telling you your business needs:

1. Shine the light

Though it’s not comfortable to admit, discrimination in its technical sense – identifying differences – is a fundamental human trait. What we do with this information, though, is mostly guided by unconscious bias.

We all have unconscious biases. They shape our behaviour and assumptions. Because they live in our psychological blindspot, we may not be able to transcend them entirely, but we do not need to be enslaved by them either. The first step is awareness.

Jo Maddocks, Chief Psychologist at JCA Global, agrees that unconscious bias is a natural consequence of being human. “However, it is possible to notice it, recognise your feelings, turn them into conscious bias, and then change your behaviour.”

“As humans, it’s important to learn how to manage our conscious thoughts and feelings, particularly when working in industries that involve high emotional labour.”

Most people can steer away from behaviour that is clearly offensive or discriminatory. It is the more subtle or nuanced territory in which EL germinates that individuals and organisations often need illumination.

“The trick to battling this behaviour is to educate the whole organisation at all levels,” says Deborah Thomas, Director at Audeliss.

“Whether this is through culture training, diversity training, or discrimination-based training – it is crucial to raise awareness. You will find that many people who are unconsciously being discriminatory may be unaware of their behaviour and raising their awareness will help to change it.”

A lack of awareness is critical to the prevalence of emotional labour, and the problem is compounded when it becomes the prejudiced person’s to solve.

As Bird says, “It often falls to the people most affected by these comments to explain and educate others on their upsetting nature in a non-confrontational way, despite their own emotional response.”

Responsibility for explanation and education should rest with the organisation, not the individual.

Greater awareness is, however, only the starting point. It needs to be supported by reliable reporting and resolution processes, and an open and inclusive culture.

Responsibility for explanation and education should rest with the organisation, not the individual.

“Employees need to feel protected and supported through well-defined pathways, with multi-option routes to channel any concern,” says Sharon Looney.

2. Open up and include

By now, the business case for diversity is well-proven, with factors like cognitive diversity adding further appreciation for diversity’s potential for impact.

But, Deborah Thomas suggests, diversity without inclusion is lip service.

“If you want to foster a diverse workforce that will aid your innovation, profitability and productivity – there needs to be inclusion. Think of it this way: diversity is being invited to the party, but inclusion is being asked to dance. This is why education is so important, to ensure that all members of your team are aware of the sheer importance of this and are respecting each other fully.”

Inclusivity and awareness of issues like EL need to be grounded in organisational culture, but this requires ownership by leadership and beyond.

“It is not solely the responsibility of HR,” says Thomas. “All management should be responsible for the safeguarding of your employees in order to create a completely safe space for all.”

Jonathan Richards agrees that the context is crucial.

“It all comes down to culture.”

“Companies with high staff churn rates might shy away from responsibility when it comes to their culture, reluctant to admit that it’s to blame for the incessant new faces and leaving dos.”

Those businesses that get this right understand that responsibility and accountability are essential. However, these approaches need to be learned.

3. Swap AI for EI

At a time that most businesses are trying to understand the technical skills required to thrive in the age of AI, soft skills in the realm of Emotional Intelligence (EI) continue to grow in importance.

“Our research shows a significant correlation between performance and elevated levels of EI in roles where there is high emotional labour (Hughes and Maddocks 2018),” reports Jo Maddocks.

This is especially true of leaders. According to Tim Segaller, “Leaders and managers should suspend the rush to judgement and instead show a willingness to listen to people’s experience and show empathy towards their feelings, concerns, values and preferences.”

“In practice, handling these situations means being able to hold sensitive, nuanced and tricky conversations, both one-to-one and in groups. The skillset required for this is all around emotional intelligence, skilful communication and team/group facilitation.”

Elevated EI helps reduce instances of emotional labour while assisting those who experience it in managing it better. In that sense, emotional intelligence has a company-wide application. However, among leadership, these skills have become imperative.

Consider the scenario provided by Nancy Doyle PhD, CEO of Genius Within:

“Emotional labour becomes contentious for neurodiverse people when social and emotional norms are built into a job unnecessarily. For example, data analysts who are required to have team influencing skills, though this has no tangible impact on their job or company norms of socialising when the roles do not require it.”

“These may have an additional adverse effect on neurodiverse people and could, in those circumstances, be defined as discrimination.”

Appreciating and empowering the increasing diversity of perspectives in the modern workplace requires a blend of courage, accountability, compassion, empathy, curiosity and mutual respect. These qualities can be nurtured, but leaders have a vital role to play in modelling them to the business.