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Emotional labor or emotion work is a requirement of a job that employees display required emotions toward customers or others. Example professions that require emotional labor are: nurses, doctors, waiting staff, and television actors. However, as particular economies move from a manufacturing to a service-based economy, many more workers in a variety of occupational fields are expected to manage their emotions according to employer demands when compared to sixty years ago.
The sociologist Arlie Hochschild provides the first definition of emotional labor, which is a form of emotion regulation that creates a publicly visible facial and bodily display within the workplace. The related term emotion work (also called "emotion management") refers to "these same acts done in a private context," such as within the private sphere of one’s home or interactions with family and friends. There are three types of emotion work: cognitive, bodily, and expressive. Within cognitive emotion work, one attempts to change images, ideas, or thoughts in hopes of changing the feelings associated with them. For example, one may associate a family picture with feeling happy and think about said picture whenever attempting to feel happy. Within bodily emotion work, one attempts to change physical symptoms in order to create a desired emotion. For example, one may attempt deep breathing in order to reduce anger. Within expressive emotion work, one attempts to change expressive gestures to change inner feelings. For example, one may attempt to smile when trying to feel happy. One becomes aware of emotion work most often when one’s feelings do not fit the situation. For instance, when one does not feel sad at a funeral, one becomes acutely aware of the feelings appropriate for that situation.
While emotion work happens within the private sphere, emotional labor is emotion management within the workplace according to employer expectations. According to Hochschild (1983), the emotion management by employers creates a situation in which this emotion management can be exchanged in the marketplace. According to Hochschild (1983), jobs involving emotional labor are defined as those that:
Hochschild (1983) argues that within this commodification process, service workers are estranged from their own feelings in the workplace.
In the past, emotional labor demands and display rules were viewed as a characteristic of particular occupations, such as restaurant workers, cashiers, hospital workers, bill collectors, counselors, secretaries, and nurses. However, display rules have been conceptualized not only as role requirements of particular occupational groups, but also as interpersonal job demands, which are shared by many kinds of occupations.
According to Larson and Yao (2005), empathy should characterize physicians’ interactions with their patients because, despite advancement in medical technology, the interpersonal relationship between physicians and patients remains essential to quality healthcare. Larson and Yao (2005) argue that physicians consider empathy a form of emotional labor. Specifically, according to Larson and Yao (2005), physicians engage in emotional labor through deep acting by feeling sincere empathy before, during, and after interactions with patients. On the other hand, Larson and Yao (2005) argue that physicians engage in surface acting when they fake empathic behaviors toward the patient. Although Larson and Yao (2005) argue that deep acting is preferred, physicians may rely on surface acting when sincere empathy for patients is impossible. Overall, Larson and Yao (2005) argue that physicians are more effective and enjoy more professional satisfaction when they engage in empathy through deep acting due to emotional labor.
According to Martin (1999), police work involves substantial amounts of emotional labor by officers, who must control their own facial and bodily displays of emotion in the presence of other officers and citizens. Although policing is often viewed as stereotypically masculine work that focuses on fighting crime, policing also requires officers to maintain order and provide a variety of interpersonal services. For example, police must have a commanding presence that allows them to act decisively and maintain control in unpredictable situations while having the ability to actively listen and talk to citizens. According to Martin (1999), a police officer who displays too much anger, sympathy, or other emotion while dealing with danger on the job will be viewed by other officers as someone unable to withstand the pressures of police work. While being able to balance this self-management of emotions in front of other officers, police must also assertively restore order and use effective interpersonal skills to gain citizen trust and compliance. Ultimately, the ability of police officers to effectively engage in emotional labor affects how other officers and citizens view them.
In her 1991 study of waitresses in Philadelphia, Paules (1991) examines how these workers assert control and protect their self identity during interactions with customers. In restaurant work, Paules (1991) argues, workers’ subordination to customers is reinforced through "cultural symbols that originate from deeply rooted assumptions about service work." Because the waitresses in Paules' (1991) study were not strictly regulated by their employers, waitresses’ interactions with customers were controlled by the waitresses themselves. Although they are stigmatized by the stereotypes and assumptions of servitude surrounding restaurant work, the waitresses Paules (1991) studied were not negatively affected by their interactions with customers. To the contrary, they viewed their ability to manage their emotions as a valuable skill that could be used to gain control over customers. Thus, the Philadelphia waitresses took advantage of the lack of employer-regulated emotional labor in order to avoid the potentially negative consequences of emotional labor.
Though Paules (1991) highlights the positive consequences of emotional labor for a specific population of waitresses, other scholars have also found negative consequences of emotional labor within the waitressing industry. Through eighteen months of participant observation research, Bayard De Volo (2003) found that casino waitresses are highly monitored and monetarily bribed to perform emotional labor in the workplace. Specifically, Bayard De Volo (2003) argues that through a sexualized environment and a generous tipping system, both casino owners and customers control waitresses' behavior and appearance for their own benefit and pleasure. Even though the waitresses have their own forms of individual and collective resistance mechanisms, intense and consistent monitoring of their actions by casino management makes it difficult to change the power dynamics of the casino workplace.
By using participant observation and interviews, Leidner (1993) examines how employers in fast food restaurants regulate workers’ interactions with customers. According to Leidner (1993), employers attempt to regulate workers’ interactions with customers only under certain conditions. Specifically, when employers attempt to regulate worker-customer interactions, employers believe that “the quality of the interaction is important to the success of the enterprise,” that workers are “unable or unwilling to conduct the interactions appropriately on their own,” and that the "tasks themselves are not too complex or context-dependent." According to Leidner (1993), regulating employee interactions with customers involves standardizing workers’ personal interactions with customers. At the McDonald's fast food restaurants in Leidner’s (1993) study, these interactions are strictly scripted, and workers’ compliance with the scripts and regulations are closely monitored.
Along with examining employers’ attempts to regulate employee-customer interactions, Leidner (1993) examines how fast-food workers’ respond to these regulations. According to Leidner (1993), meeting employers’ expectations requires workers to engage in some form of emotional labor. For example, McDonald's workers are expected to greet customers with a smile and friendly attitude independent of their own mood or temperament at the time. Leidner (1993) suggests that rigid compliance with these expectations is at least potentially damaging to workers’ sense of self and identity. However, Leidner (1993) did not see the negative consequences of emotional labor in the workers she studied. Instead, McDonald's workers attempted to individualize their responses to customers in small ways. Specifically, they used humor or exaggeration to demonstrate their rebellion against the strict regulation of their employee-customer interactions.
In 1991, Sutton did an in-depth qualitative study into bill collectors at a collection agency. He found that unlike the other jobs described here where employees need to act cheerful and concerned, bill collectors are selected and socialized to show irritation to most debtors. Specifically, the collection agency hired agents who seemed to be easily aroused. The newly hired agents were then trained on when and how to show varying emotions to different types of debtors. As they worked at the collection agency, they were closely monitored by their supervisors to make sure that they frequently conveyed urgency to debtors.
Bill collectors' emotional labor consists of not letting angry and hostile debtors make them angry and to not feel guilty about pressuring friendly debtors for money. They coped with angry debtors by publicly showing their anger or making jokes when they got off the phone. They minimized the guilt they felt by staying emotionally detached from the debtors.
Macdonald and Sirianni (1996) use the term “emotional proletariat” to describe service jobs in which "workers exercise emotional labor wherein they are required to display friendliness and deference to customers." Because of deference, these occupations tend to be stereotyped as female jobs, independent of the actual number of women working the job. According to Macdonald and Sirianni (1996), because deference is a characteristic demanded of all those in disadvantaged structural positions, especially women, when deference is made a job requirement, women are likely to be overrepresented in these jobs. Macdonald and Sirianni (1996) claim that “[i]n no other area of wage labor are the personal characteristics of the workers so strongly associated with the nature of the work.” Thus, according to Macdonald and Sirianna (1996), although all workers employed within the service economy may have a difﬁcult time maintaining their dignity and self-identity due to the demands of emotional labor, such an issue may be especially problematic for women workers.
Emotional labor also affects women by perpetuating occupational segregation and the gender wage gap. Job segregation, which is the systematic tendency for men and women to work in different occupations, is often cited as the reason why women lack equal pay when compared to men. According to Guy and Newman (2004), occupational segregation and ultimately the gender wage gap can at least be partially attributed to emotional labor. Specifically, work-related tasks that require emotion work thought to be natural for women, such as caring and empathizing are requirements of many female-dominated occupations. However, according to Guy and Newman (2004), these feminized work tasks are not a part of formal job descriptions and performance evaluations. The emotion work expected of many female employees is essentially invisible and uncompensated while the employer gains profit more generally. Thus, according to Guy and Newman (2004), ignored and uncompensated emotional labor is at least one underlying cause for both occupational gender segregation and the gender wage gap.
Positive affective display in service interactions, such as smiling and conveying friendliness, are positively associated with customer positive feelings, and important outcomes, such as intention to return, intention to recommend a store to others, and perception of overall service quality. There is evidence that emotion labor may lead to employee's emotional exhaustion and burnout over time, and may also reduce employee's job satisfaction. That is, higher degree of using emotion regulation on the job is related to higher levels of employees' emotional exhaustion, and lower levels of employees' job satisfaction.
There is empirical evidence that higher levels of emotional labor demands are not uniformly rewarded with higher wages. Rather, the reward is dependent on the level of general cognitive demands required by the job. That is, occupations with high cognitive demands evidence wage returns with increasing emotional labor demands; whereas occupations low in cognitive demands evidence a wage "penalty" with increasing emotional labor demands.