Cheers to That! The Hidden Cost of Emotional Labour

How often during the course of Christmas and New Year festivities did you find yourself thanking or agreeing with someone in complete contradiction to your actual feelings?  We all do it, forcing our cheek muscles into something that approximates a smile to thank Aunt Emma for the completely hideous shirt, as we assure her that, “yes, it is absolutely perfect”. Or feigning deafness as someone gets revved up over politics, “if only we understood the threat” they say.  

Our responses are universal, telling a small lie to keep the peace.  

Yet each lie or response carries a cost to our soul.  The dissonance, often minuscule at first, quickly compounds often becoming a tinderbox of emotions and angst.  

Think back, how often did you push back that uncomfortable feeling, as you thanked aunts, mothers and sisters-in-law and third cousins for presents you neither liked nor needed? And how often did you have another sip of wine, as you feigned deafness to loudly articulated views?  

How often have you, or one of your immediate family, after that final swig of beer or wine, raised your voice to “add a voice of reason” to what you believe is an ignorant debate over the issues of the day, only to be drawn into a shouting match?  

More importantly how many times were you relieved to shut your front door, exhausted from the day/night spent in the company of others?  

All of these social and familial interactions are deemed relatively normal– even the conflict.  

The dissonance we feel between our expressed and felt emotion, is defined as emotional labour. Take a moment, think back to the festive season, consider everyone’s behaviour, yours included, can you identify the emotional labourers in your extended family and friendship network? Is it you?  The ones who keep the peace no matter what.  

Or perhaps you were the powder keg that exploded after hours of holding your silence, until finally the last straw broke (usually over something so small you can’t even remember what it was), and you were (loudly) sharing your views, insights or experience. 

To a greater or lesser extent, we all expect to feel some level of angst over the festive season, feelings we often assuage through the consumption of alcohol, food or drugs. Particularly as women. Rather than expressing our felt emotions, we have another glass of sauvignon blanc or bubbles, delaying the cost of our dissonance until the next morning. 

This experience extends to our professional lives as well. 

First coined in 1983, emotional labour in the professional sphere is the commercialisation of feelings.  It is the “management of feeling to create a publicly observable bodily and facial display: emotional labor is sold for a wage and therefore has an exchange value.” The bought emotional display, is most obvious in smiles of McDonalds’ workers, the solicitous service of airline stewards, or the caring and yet efficient demeanour of nursing staff. Like us all, even these paragons of equanimity have moments when they don’t want to smile, and yet their job demands it. Sometimes thought as social chameleons, service industry employees learn that the art of artifice is essential to keeping both their job and sanity. 

All professions have their own expectation of emotional labour – from listening attentively to the experiences and expectations (personal and professional) of clients, colleagues and superiors, displaying outward confidence in a solution you feel is doomed to fail, managing customer aggression or sitting alongside someone in their darkest moments. We often think of this as emotional intelligence – and it is, and then some.  

For many, this labour is so fundamental to their role, that they don’t even realise the burdens they are carrying – instead believing it is normal to need at least half a bottle of wine each night, to unwind and throw off the work shackles. Or they apportion blame for fatigue, overwhelm, anxiety and poor physical health to the stresses of managing work/life balance and compensating for a partner who “does not understand”. Yet hidden in plain sight, the dissonant cost of emotional labour compounds and magnifies, until the individual is burnt out, exhausted, experiencing significant discord in all their relationships and feeling physically unwell. 

It is important to understand that emotional labour, in and of itself, is not bad or even unreasonable.  

The cost becomes too great when the individual can no longer negotiate the distance between felt and economically desired emotions causing psychological, physical and emotional harm. 

Professionals typically endeavour to exist in the workplace, at arm’s length from clients, colleagues and other stakeholders, espousing the benefits of professional distance to provide independent advice. However, for some professions and individuals this distance is harder to maintain especially when colleagues or clients actively seek their support. In these situations, individuals often identify with clients, thereby compounding the emotional labour burden. 

The loneliness of the 21st century often means individuals are resorting to sharing personal or professional challenges with colleagues or trusted service providers, where once these were only shared with trusted friends.  

An example of this, is the evolving dialogue hairdressers and beauty therapists have started about the emotional labour they are undertaking in the course of their work, particularly in listening and supporting clients who disclose being a victim of family or domestic violence.  

Regardless of organisational size, all employees carry some form of emotional labour.  From engaging in water cooler chat to projecting confidence and certainty whilst implementing a transformational change project and carrying the burden of others’ fears and angst over the changes – wherever employees interact with one another or clients, they will undertake emotional labour. 

As women, our emotional labour quota is more often than not larger than our male counterparts. Tasked with implementing and being the public face of controversial change, managing difficult relationships or being the informal counsellor to colleagues, women are often deemed more able to manage emotion, often at great cost to themselves. How many times have you realised that you are seen as the office “bitch” – cold and uncaring as you implement an organisational pivot that will result in job losses.  Or seen as person everyone can dump emotional angst on, but never deemed worthy of promotion? 

As alcoholism in women in their forties and fifties is on the rise, it is timely to think about how often you or your female colleagues engage in debriefing drinks sessions to cope with the covert, violent attack on their self-identity, too often deemed a reality of work.  Where the only solution to the trauma of work, seems to be another bottle.  

With depression set to become the leading global cause of acquired disability by 202014, the unrecognised cost of emotional labour can be extreme, often compounding any other source of trauma in our lives.  Depression, loneliness and fatigue add up often resulting in poor work performance, relationship breakdowns, stress and overwhelm. 

So, what’s the solution? 

Research shows that the more resilient you are, the easier it is to navigate the burdens of relationships and interactions. Built on a foundation of emotional and social intelligence, a network of supporters and a wellness approach to life, resilience thrives when you are fully present and mindful of each moment.  

Acknowledging the realities of your job, helps you to fully comprehend and appreciate the work you are undertaking and the impact that is having on the shared purpose of the organisation. Proactively sharing your experiences builds strong and connected networks of support with likeminded souls18 and taking a moment to breathe helps you to identify and take responsibility for your own emotional state so you are better able to care for yourself. 

For some the answer lies in a daily trip to the gym or a bike ride, or an hour spent meditating. For others it is spending time playing and being with the small humans or fur children in our lives, cooking a delicious meal, having a bath, listening to music or journaling. Whatever works for you and after all that, if you still want a glass of medicinal sauvignon blanc – savour and enjoy! 

 

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