The Toll of Emotional Labour at Work during COVID-19

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Coffee, Tea or Exhausted Me?

By Kate Baggott

Feeling more exhausted during the pandemic? It’s probably the extra emotional labour you’ve been doing.

What is emotional labour?
Over the past several weeks, much has been said and written about the increased load on women as they carry the greater demands of household labour and home schooling while working remotely. Domestic labour, though, is not emotional labour.

Emotional labour is a term coined in 1983 by sociologist Arlie Hochschild. Hochschild studied how flight attendants and bill collectors were expected to manage their emotions to present themselves in a certain professional role. Later, Debra Meyerson talked about what it means to reveal or hide less socially desirable emotions in the workplace.

“Emotional labour is about being trained in a certain behaviour,” says Alison Braithwaite, a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo who is studying the reasons why women leave corporate jobs. “It’s about fitting in and how managers ask ‘Do you make me feel the way I want to feel?” since emotional attunement is considered key to being a good fit in the corporate world. If you are the only woman, the only person of colour, the only member of the LGBTQ community on your team — or even in your office — then you have to work harder just to fit in. That’s the very essence of emotional labour.”

Why is it worse now?
Managing your own emotions to put others at ease. Providing service with a smile while your children are worrying over school work. Appearing calm and rational and firm while you have been wearing the same sweatpants for three days. The toll of emotional labour certainly feels much heavier during the pandemic and there are several reasons for that.

“When we are under stress, our view of the world narrows,” says Braithwaite. “You see people’s trauma responses everywhere. It’s COVID, it’s the issues of race and social justice we are facing, and it is gender inequality. Our society is a tinder box just waiting for the spark. Emotions are very embodied and they are creating serious issues in our bodies that causes tension and pain and we could all be triggered at different times.”

Remote work is also playing its part. Where the work day once ended with leaving the office, it has been recognized that our work time is extending into the evenings and weekends. What has been less acknowledged is that the roles we play at work are also blending into our home lives. If you could once leave your work personality at the job, now you have to play that role in your own home and have it witnessed by your partner, your children or your aging parents.

“There were lots of ways we could draw a line between the day job and home life pre-COVID, but right now, everything is blurred,” says Susan Hodkinson, Chief Operating Officer and Partner, at the human resources consulting group Crowe Soberman Associates. “It is not business as usual and we can’t expect everyone to produce in the same way that they did before. We have to be flexible and let people deliver those deliverables in the way that is possible for them. As leaders, we do have to think about all the emotional labour all the time, and if we don’t do that, we won’t be able to run our businesses because we won’t have the people.”

To make the issue more complex is the fact that, in this time of uncertainty, the roles at work we have developed the emotional control to play are not necessarily available to us. That puts the people in charge with less control, even if those working with them are still looking for guidance. In other words, mastering one kind of emotional labour in the workplace, does not mean you are prepared for the new demands of this situation.

“All of us, as leaders, have been trying to find a balance and reassure our teams that we’re on it, but also trying to be realistic, Hodkinson says. “I think that leaders do generally feel that we can never let anyone down because it will make everyone panicky and upset, but there is a point when the you’re lying in bed and the lights go out and you think ‘I need to do another day of this.” We don’t have the answers either, I wish I did.”

What is the solution?
The solution to all this emotional exhaustion is self-care. Often presented as a spa day, self-care actually has far more profound implications. It does mean, though, that everyone has to sit quietly with their bodies and their emotions to be present. That alone might require some broader social change.

“Emotions are embodied and unless you are present in your body, you are not necessarily giving yourself self-care,” says Braithwaite. “Our society needs to be more trauma informed so that we give people the benefit of the doubt more. There is a belief that we are all responsible for our emotions and in control of them, but that is not necessarily always true. We co-create our emotional state and we are affected by each other’s emotions and expectations of managed emotions.”

For most of us, that means expressing emotions we are used to keeping down and listening to others’ feelings we are conditioned to dismiss as irrational.

“We need to be able to sit in our own uncomfortableness and in each other’s uncomfortableness a bit more,” explains Braithwaite. “An angry person needs to vent. Plenty of people have a perfect right to be angry now. They have right to be angry, they need to be heard. Just speaking is a way to calm down your nervous system.”

Broader acknowledgement of the complexities of the emotional labour that goes into professional roles is slowly coming to the fore in corporate circles. If anything, it is emerging as a more empathetic style of management that embraces uncertainly.

“I am very much an optimist and I believe optimism is a necessary trait for leaders,” Hodkinson says.

“There have been good outcomes from this situation and there will continue to be good outcomes. Perhaps they will come from exercising our empathy and compassion muscles a little bit more, but we have to recognize the fact that this is going to be going on for a long time and we have to pace ourselves.”

 

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Kate Baggott

Kate Baggott

Kate Baggott is the Managing Editor of B2BNN. Her technology and business journalism has appeared in the Technology Review, the Globe and Mail, Canada Computes, the Vancouver Sun and the Bay Street Bull. She is the author of the short story collections Love from Planet Wine Cooler and Dry Stories. Links to recently published pieces can be found at www.katebaggott.com