What is Emotion Work?

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Can your workplace become emotionally healthy?

Karla McLaren, M.Ed.

Emotional Dynamics at Work with RThe truth is this: you live at work.

If you count up your hours at work and add in your commute, and then add the time you spent becoming trained for your career, you’ll find that you’ve spent more time at work than in any other place in your life.

Basically, we all live at work — yet for the most part, the work world has not created a comfortable, healthy, or emotionally well-regulated place for us to be.

People in the work world mistakenly call emotional skills soft skills, yet we’ve all been in jobs where the emotional atmosphere was managed so poorly that every possible aspect of our work suffered. Emotional skills are not soft skills at all; they’re actually the most important skills you — and your colleagues — can possess.

My workplace consulting process, Emotional Dynamics at Work® focuses on the human dimensions of work: the emotional atmosphere; the workplace culture; and the amount of emotion work that’s occurring. If you can identify the emotion work in your workplace, you can discover astonishing things about what’s actually going on, and begin to make your workplace truly livable.

And if you can put emotion work best practices in place, you can increase job satisfaction, efficiency, and productivity — and you can decrease workplace conflict, absenteeism, and turnover. Understanding and managing emotion work is the key to making your workplace a healthy, productive, and worthwhile place to spend your life.

Understanding emotion work

The concept of emotion work comes from the acclaimed sociologist Arlie Hochschild (pronounced hoke-shilled). In her groundbreaking book, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, she described what she termed emotional labor, or the way that our emotions and emotional states are a part of what we offer (and what is expected from us) in the workplace.

In her book, Hochschild gives examples of flight attendants, who must not only understand the ins and outs of their physical work on airplanes, but must also display an open and welcoming demeanor to passengers. Even when passengers are bad-tempered or annoying, part of the work of a flight attendant is to continually offer a calm, helpful, and accepting face to the public. This is a flight attendant’s emotional labor, or emotion work.

As we’ve all witnessed, flight attendants are expected to always offer an accommodating and empathic demeanor to passengers, no matter what problems occur. These demeanor rules are not often written down explicitly in job descriptions, yet they’re a crucial part of what we’ve all come to expect (and even demand) from flight attendants.

The concept of emotion work helps us look at the often unwritten emotional and empathic behaviors that are expected in the workplace – and at how workers must manage their own emotions and the emotions of others in order to get their jobs done.

For instance, if airline passengers are rude, a good flight attendant won’t generally snap at them or ignore their requests – as he might if his friends or family treated him rudely. In fact, his normal human reactions would be frowned upon by the airline (and by the other passengers); therefore, part of his job description (stated or not) is to deal with rudeness and bad behavior in unusual or even counter-productive (to him) ways.

This is emotion work – and in many cases, it’s actually enforced empathizing. It’s a part of our social contract with each other, and though it’s not usually spoken of explicitly as a job requirement, emotion work is possibly the most important job skill you possess.

Identifying your own emotion work

As you go through your day, pay attention to the emotion work-loads of the people who serve you, and of the people you serve. You probably have very specific (yet unspoken) emotion-work rules for the owners and employees of businesses you visit (especially restaurants and stores), even if you’ve never set eyes on anyone in the business before.

One common unspoken expectation is that people in service or retail positions must be empathic toward you. They must appear to care about you and your coffee, or your shoes, or your cat food – even if they’re making minimum wage and you’re wealthy; and even if they’re well-dressed and you just got out of the gym, with your hair still wet. It doesn’t matter what you look like or how you behave; your position as a customer – or even as a potential customer – entitles you to free empathy and free respect.

There is a saying that “People don’t quit their jobs; they quit their managers,” because the fact is that very few people leave jobs because their daily tasks were too hard; instead, they often leave because the emotional environment was not managed effectively.

Our expectations of emotion work and professionalized empathy are so ingrained that you and I know how every person in a business is supposed to behave toward us, how we’re supposed to behave toward them, and how other customers are supposed to behave toward all of us. Everyone has a very specific part to play, and a very specific emotional and empathic performance that is required.

Strangely, most of us have never been taught explicitly about any of this emotion work; we’re just supposed to have picked it up through cultural osmosis.

At your own job, notice that you have very specific emotion-work and empathy-work expectations for yourself, your co-workers, your employees and contractors, and your managers or bosses. Yet even though we all know how everyone is supposed to behave, this knowledge is not made clear, and a great deal of the trouble I see in the workplace revolves around emotion work that is either not being performed (the problem employee), or is being performed but not valued (the overburdened or heading-for-burnout employee).

The workplace can become really miserable when there is trouble in the sphere of emotion work.

In many cases, emotion-work rules require that we behave inauthentically with each other and toward ourselves. This is not to say that emotion work is inauthentic or toxic: Empathically speaking, we all work to help each other function (and become more skilled) in the social world, and sometimes that means displaying emotions we aren’t currently feeling, or hiding the ones we are feeling!

This everyday emotion work is what makes relationships flow smoothly; it’s what helps us relate to and support each other, and it’s what helps us mature as emotional, social, and empathic people.

However, emotion work is work, and if you’re not aware of how much emotion work you do (or how much you expect others to do for you) then empathic burnout is a very real possibility – for everyone.

As you empathically observe your social world, take an inventory of your own emotion work and ask yourself: Is your emotion work being acknowledged by anyone? Is it appreciated? Is it even mentioned? Could it become more intentional and conscious?

Most importantly, is your emotion work working for you?

Emotion work is an essential aspect of empathic skills and relationship skills, but it tends to be entirely unconscious – and as such, it tends to live in the hidden world of unspoken expectations. However, there are ways to bring emotion work out of the shadows.

Book and audio covers of The Art of Empathy by Karla McLarenThe hidden nature of emotion work

As a hyper-empathic young woman, I was hilariously out of place in most jobs, because emotion work was so obvious to me that I didn’t realize other people couldn’t see it. As I write in my book The Art of Empathy, I tended to get into trouble because I would say out loud, “Hey, why don’t you tell your assistant the truth instead of doing his work for him?” or “That person is working way past her abilities, and she’s bossy and snappy because of it,” or “This person is heading for burnout, and if you call yourself a manager, then manage the tension in this job and protect your workers!”

Empathically speaking, I saw poorly-managed emotions, unjust emotion work, and enforced, inauthentic empathy as an integral part of the unprofitability and inefficiency of the workplace – but until I discovered Arlie Hochshild’s work, I had no vocabulary for it.

Because I had so many persistent questions about the emotionally backward atmosphere of the workplace, I went back to school and minored in the Sociology of Work and Occupations. I also became certified in Career Testing & Guidance and in Human Resource Administration – because I wanted to know: What do the experts say about this situation?

After four years of study, the answer is this: The experts say almost nothing.

HR Administration programs spend almost no time on emotion work and enforced empathy requirements. There are one or two psychology courses sprinkled here and there, but their main focus is on administration first, and on how to deal with burnout and problem employees second.

There’s very little understanding of emotion work or how an unsupportive workplace can create a toxic emotional atmosphere … which will then create problem employees!

There’s also very little awareness of why people burn out: A great deal of the burnout response-and-prevention I was taught focused on making jobs more varied and interesting, but there was almost no awareness of the burnout potential of unsupported, unjust, or unreasonable emotion work and enforced empathy.

In my Career Testing & Guidance education, I also found no mention of emotion work or its effect on morale, workplace efficiency, or turnover.

Sadly, the Career Guidance professionals whose job it is to help us find work, and the HR professionals who oversee the workplace (unless they’ve done extra study) usually have no direct education in or understanding of emotion work, which is the most crucial skill that makes the workplace functional (or, more commonly, dysfunctional).

There is a saying that “People don’t quit their jobs; they quit their managers,” because the fact is that very few people leave jobs because their daily tasks were too hard; instead, they often leave because the emotional and empathic environment was not managed effectively. It’s an ongoing problem that the workplace truly hasn’t got a handle on – at all.

As such, I didn’t pursue Career Guidance or HR after I finished my certifications; however, I did discover precisely why emotion work problems in the workplace aren’t being addressed. We’ve got on-site specialists and processes for almost every other problem that exists in the workplace, but the Human Resource professionals whose job it is to humanize the workplace usually don’t have the training or support they need to address emotion work issues. It’s time for a new approach.

Bringing emotion work out into the open

People who are empathically sensitive tend to pick up on – and then address – the emotional troubles around them. However, because emotions and emotion work aren’t clearly understood, these people are often unaware that they are engaged in constant, unpaid emotion work.

They tend to clean up the emotional troubles around them. They mediate between people who can’t get along. They jolly the grumpy people in their lives. They translate emotions into easily digestible chunks for their emotionally unaware friends and family. They calm people who are anxious. They always seem to sit next to the person who needs to unload. People tend to bring them their troubles and their conflicts … and no matter what their stated job description is, they have a second full-time job: They’re professional emotion workers and professional empaths. But because their work isn’t identified as work, they may burn out.

Managers can learn to identify the emotional work-loads of their employees, and in so doing, they can begin to create emotionally well-regulated workplaces that won’t burn people out unnecessarily. That’s the focus of Emotional Dynamics at Work®, and if you’d like to learn more about how to address the most crucial aspects of workplace efficiency, harmony, and profitability, contact us!

Inquire about Emotional Dynamics at Work

The truth is that you live at work. We all do. And we all deserve to live well, to be treated well, and to have our emotion work valued as the essential work it is!

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