Are We Being Short-Changed by the Idea of Emotional Labour?

Is the way that we think about the “emotional labour” involved in customer service jobs, helping to keep the real value of it hidden and do we as customers end up getting worse service as a result?  And are businesses struggling to keep our customer and our loyalty at least partly because they don’t fully understand the concept of, or properly appreciate the value of, emotional labour?

Arguably, yes.

First, a definition.  Introduced as a concept by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1983, emotional labour is the work we do as employees in managing our emotions according to a set of organisational rules about what is appropriate and effective.

It includes suppressing feelings or displaying feelings which are different to our genuine emotions.  Because it can apply to both negative and positive emotions, examples might include:

1)  teachers reproaching children for behaviour they don’t necessarily feel strongly about;

2)  flight attendants cheerily welcoming passengers aboard after 10 hours into a 14 hour shift; and,

3)  bank tellers patiently explaining the overdraft charges for the fourth time to the same customer. 

The common thread is that all of these people are required to display certain emotions in contact with other people who are using the service.  What is more, by doing so, they may experience a sense of dissonance between what they are showing and what they are feeling.

There is considerable literature on emotional labour – much of it addressing the roles that require high levels of emotional labour and the effect of this, such as burnout, stress and high levels of turnover. Hochschild’s first example of a role in which emotional labour demands were high was flight attendants, and nowadays, although it is considered a component of almost any job, it is service roles which feature most prominently amongst the list of jobs where emotional labour demands are high.

There are many interesting questions about the way that emotional labour has been debated and studied, but on a practical level one of the most important questions is what are the advantages that all this research has brought us as customers, or as customer service employees or leaders?  It seems, regrettably, not many.

It isn’t because there aren’t benefits to be had in the business world.  The research is not just academic navel-gazing: almost all researchers in this field discuss the implications for employers and employees (though admittedly devoting considerably fewer column inches to customers).

Instead, it seems to be that customer service organisations have mostly not got hold of the idea and set it to work in their human resource management and customer service strategies. 

Now it can’t be that people at the top don’t understand it.  It’s easy enough to grasp:  customer service employers have to commit considerable effort in emotional labour terms to deliver the quality of service that organisations, and customers, demand.  And if it’s not what they really feel and they have to do a lot of it, then generally, it will be tiring at the very least and in some cases, positively harmful.

So why is it not in common parlance amongst customer service organisations and why are there not queues of consultants and companies offering help and support in capitalising on and managing emotional labour?

One argument is that the term emotional labour tends to over-simplify the area at the cost of understanding either the true value to the business or the actual ability of people to provide the labour. 

If emotional labour were considered to be similar to for example, cognitive labour or physical labour, it would find a value in the marketplace, related to its contribution to business success and its scarcity.  Many people are valued by organisations according to the cognitive or physical labour they do for them, and are rewarded and managed according to their particular contribution. 

The difference seems to be that we understand that cognitive labour implies a skill differential, which creates value over and above just anyone turning up and using their cognitive skills to do a job.  And as such we don’t talk about cognitive labour – we talk about cognitive skills, thinking style, knowledge areas etc, yet this is cognitive labour and our knowledge workers and thought leaders are cognitive labourers.  

When we need a logistics and distribution manager, we don’t just want anyone to turn up and use whatever thinking style and skills they have to do our important and consequential job.  We want someone who has the knowledge and type of logical, analytical and ordered approach that fits the demands of the role.    It is not just a question of understanding what it is required and putting the effort in, but of having the sort of mind that is likely to do well at it.  Naturally, the cognitive labour we want is from people who are good at it.  We are talking about skilled cognitive labour.

However, emotional labour has largely been viewed as something that pretty much anyone can do.   We are all social animals, the vast majority of us can talk and listen and we can resolve basic problems.   The dangerous leap that many organisations seem to make at this point, and where it seems to depart from our thinking about cognitive labour, is that since this is all true, we must all be capable of doing the emotional labour required to deliver important customer service work.  And in organisations who do not think forward, this sets the scene for recruiting often young, presentable, and crucially, cheap labour, and accepting high levels of burnout, turnover and patchy service delivery as simply part of the territory.

Put like that it is easy to see how a good amount of service can fall short of its aims.  We could all turn up and give our best emotional labour and for many of us it won’t achieve the results it should for customers.  Similarly we could all turn up and offer our best cognitive labour in the logistics role and the whole place might fall apart in a matter of weeks.  But this of course wouldn’t be contemplated, whereas the customer service scenario often is. 

What is the difference here?  Perhaps it is to do with education and objectively measurable attainment. A skilled cognitive labourer working in logistics is likely to have a qualification in the field and a certificate to prove it.  It is likely that he or she may have learnt to think in a logical and structured way as a result of life experiences or may just prefer to approach life in an analytical, planned way.  In any case, logistics is considered a profession and a career and objective proof of attainment is used as a mark of suitability for logistics roles. 

On the other hand, skilled emotional labourers are unlikely to have learnt their skills at school or college and there are certainly no qualifications to prove level of attainment.  It may be the product of a sum total of life experiences, or of a natural inclination and aptitude for empathising, understanding and resolving emotional issues.  Or, probably, both. But there is no widely recognised educational marker of someone’s aptitude to create successful customer outcomes and this may be the key difference  

I am not arguing for a new diploma or degree system for customer service, equivalent to that in logistics.  I believe we need to learn to value skilled emotional labourers for what they are without having to see a certificate to prove it.  The concept of emotional labour doesn’t particularly help in this, as it focuses attention on the demands and consequences of delivering the labour, without paying much attention to the qualities of the people who will be suited to it and brilliant at it. 

When Hochschild introduced the term it was a timely reminder that jobs are not all cognitive or physical, but it has perhaps inclined us to de-skill what someone does when they deliver outstanding customer service. 

They may not have a certificate to prove it, but customers can tell you when they meet a  skilled emotional labourer.  It isn’t just a question of turning up and putting the effort in.  Great customer experiences are created by uniquely talented individuals using their learnt abilities and/or natural disposition to create satisfied and happy people.  It’s in everyone’s interest to search out that talent.

References and further reading

Wharton, Amy S. (2009) “The Sociology of Emotional Labor”. Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 35, pp. 147-165, 2009. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1603408 or doi:10.1146/annurev-soc-070308-115944

Sohn, H-K and Jeonglyeol Lee, T (2011)Relationship between HEXACO personality factors and emotional labour of service providers in the tourism industry”   Tourism Management 2011 doi:10.1016/j.tourman.2011.02.010  

Information about the Frankfurt Emotion Work Scales FEWS, Zapf et al.,1999:  http://web.uni-frankfurt.de/fb05/psychologie/Abteil/ABO/forschung/emoarbeit_e.htm

Zapf, D  (2002)Emotion Work and Psychological Well-being. A Review of the Literature and some Conceptual Considerations” Human Resource Management Review, 12, 237-268

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5 Comments to “Are We Being Short-Changed by the Idea of Emotional Labour?”

  1. I agree with your sentiments wholheartedly… I am actually doing a PhD on the same thoughts. I would be interested in discussing this further with the author

    • Hi Aaron

      Thank you for leaving a comment. It’s very encouraging to hear that you are conducting research into the concept as I am convinced there is much more value yet to come from the area, both for academics and in the workplace.

      I will email you today as it would be great to hear more about what you are doing.

  2. Hi,

    Arlie Hochschild theory of emotional labour sounds similar to Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. It describes how social life can be a stage an individual performs on in front of the world. That’s my very brief definition, I am sure an academic could it more justice than I can.

    Hochschild’s theory is similar to Ervings’, were it describes emotional management in how people adapt to organisational rules by playing out to these rules. You act differently in a work place and the conditions of the environment can heavily influence social and individual behaviours and actions. There is a lot more you could go with these two theories and compare, as I do think they complement each other.

    I bet most people don’t act they would at work when they are home or visa versa.

    Thought I would add this to the blog, Ervings work on social theory to me really makes sense.

    Thanks

    Simon

    • Change to Posting by Simon at 11:00 am, on 01.10.11 – See below.

      I’ve made a mistake and I can’t see how to edit my post as I am only a guest but I have added my update version below. It’s only the last sentence of the largest paragraph, which I have changed.

      Hi,

      Arlie Hochschild theory of emotional labour sounds similar to Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. It describes how social life can be a stage an individual performs on in front of the world. That’s my very brief definition, I am sure an academic could it more justice than I can.

      Hochschild’s theory is similar to Ervings’, were Hochschild’s describes emotional management in how people adapt to organisational rules by playing out to these rules, and Erving’s stage would be the work environment. You act differently in a work place and the conditions of the environment can heavily influence social and individual behaviours and actions. There is a lot more you could go with these two theories and compare, as I do think they complement each other.

      I bet most people don’t act they would at work when they are home or visa versa.

      Thought I would add this to the blog, Ervings work on social theory to me really makes sense.

      Thanks

      Simon

  3. Hi Simon

    Thank you for your comment and pointing out the similarities between Goffman’s and Hochschild’s perspectives on social action. You are quite right – Hochschild’s concept of emotional labour seems to depend on the assumption proposed by Goffman that taking different roles according to the environment and other “actors” is part of what we are capable of, and good at, as human beings.

    I think that Hochschild’s concerns also take a step towards economics and psychology – her specific take on emotional labour seems to me to raise pertinent questions about the economic value of acting in a work-appropriate manner in caring and service work roles and the psychological effort and cost of this particular kind of social acting. I didn’t explore either in any great detail here but I believe they are some of the avenues that other researchers have followed up.

    I am a psychologist by profession so although I am aware of the work of sociologists like Hoffman and Hochschild I can’t claim any detailed knowledge about their work. However, it seems to me that there is a good deal more to be understood about caring and service roles using sociological perspectives in the future as the number of people employed in these sectors continue to rise.

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