The Ethics of Emotional Labor at Work

Put a smile on!

A friend of mine who I have mentioned before, Cathy Reisenwitz, sent me this link a while back about thoughts on emotional labor and how it can be ethical. I’ve talked about emotional labor a few times on this site and specifically how it plays out at work but this article takes a more general approach. It applies the dynamic of emotional labor to relationships and how they especially affect women and other femme folks who are socialized to be caregivers.

One thing the author, Clementine Morrigan, says, is that she doesn’t appreciate the presumption that all emotional labor is inherently unjust or exploitative. I’ve not seen this response from most folks I know who talk about emotional labor but I can definitely believe that it happens even apart from Morrigan’s own personal experiences.

It’s easy to overextend our reactions in the face of so much injustice in the world. It’s easy to engage in vices on either side of the extremes rather than trying to strike a healthy balance in our reactions. So, instead of seeing emotional labor as always exploitative or never exploitative perhaps there are ways to say when it sometimes is and sometimes isn’t.

To that end, Morrigan wants us to ask ourselves three important questions. She doesn’t claim they are the only questions we can ask ourselves or even each other but that they are nonetheless important ones.

  1. Is it consensual?
  2. Is it valued?
  3. Is it reciprocated?

I thought it would be interesting to apply these questions to a particular context and in my case the example of work.

To their credit, Morrigan mentions work a few times in passing,

We all benefit from emotional labour in our daily lives, whether from the cashier who performs friendliness while actually having a terrible day … Simply smiling back at a cashier and not wasting their time can be enough to show our appreciation. We can tip service workers well and consistently (not to mention the importance of not using service workers as emotional punching bags).

But naturally the article isn’t about work so I don’t blame Morrigan for not saying much about it and besides, she does a lot with the little they say and even what she doesn’t say. Generally, the article is very well written and thought out and I highly recommend it as a way to check in with yourself and those you love about how y’alls emotional labor is going.

Let’s look at this list and first ask ourselves: Is emotional labor at work consensual?

This is perhaps the easiest to answer: Often no. And Morrigan in one of the very few sentences that they dedicate to the profession I have been in for half of a decade (kill me) makes it clear that the emotional labor service clerks can give (smiling when they are deeply unhappy) is a benefit customers get and seems like a non-consensual one.

After all, when I was upset yesterday (it was a very stressful day) I would have preferred to be more honest about that  with customers. But usually I nodded and dumbly said I was good or that “it was going” and tried to be neutral as possible, even though I was going through lots of suffering. It’s obvious to me at least that if I was giving emotional labor in a more consensual manner, I would not have had to come to work at all, or would have at least not felt these pressures to pretend like everything was normal when they were not.

But more than that, more than the benefit others receive, I think it’s also important to recognize that on multiple levels there is a lack of consent in this kind of emotional labor. Not only because I am displaying emotions I don’t want but it’s also in an environment that I find oppressive and that others do as well.

Work is an environment where bosses are watching over our shoulders either with their eyes or their cameras so they can make sure we smile and say the right words. It’s an environment where, if we say the “wrong” words, our words are twisted to suit the needs of anyone but ourselves. It’s an environment where our own emotions matter (and must matter) significantly less than our need to produce the “correct” emotions so we can be paid and continue living.

Most people are unhappy at their jobs or at least “disengaged” to some degree. They would rather not be there or would rather be at a better job or would like more prospects for the future, etc. But these are all emotions we have to keep buried and to be clear, this isn’t just the fault of work culture. It’s also the fault of a society that values politeness and “keeping the peace” and maintaining the status quo over the honest truth.

Moving to the second question: Is emotional labor at work valued?

This also seems like an easy question to answer: No, and even when it is, it’s not being valued enough.

And that should not be surprising given that emotional labor is, as Morrigan points out throughout their article, an undervalued part of our society. A massive amount of emotional labor keeps industries like retail alive: Employees (and managers) have to usually smile even when customers are treating us unfairly in some way.

“The customer is always right” is a popular slogan for a good reason. While it’s not strictly true, it is a guiding principle of most service work and it’s often taken to emotionally oppressive levels. Where the employees must engage in high amounts of self-restraint and ignore issues of oppression or others favoring oppression, because they need money.

And is all of this effort valued? Usually it isn’t even mentioned and when it is, the extent to which service workers are thanked for it is abysmal. Both customers and managers often underestimate or don’t even consider how much emotional labor employees have to put in. I couldn’t even count all of the times me and one of my co-workers have made frustrated faces or have had conversations about certain customers who aggravate us, upset us or even scare us.

These conversations are the closest I ever get to any sort of emotional labor that is ethical. It’s voluntary between my co-worker and I, we obviously both value it and (getting to this soon) it’s reciprocal in important ways. But it’s also taking place within an environment (work) that is lacking consent in important political sense and in which my efforts along emotional lines are usually diminished. So even ethical emotional labor becomes inherently problematic.

This isn’t always the case and sometimes you’ll get customers or managers who give you your due. But the reality of it is that service work is laid out such that it would be difficult for anyone to give the proper due for individuals who have to deal with hundreds of people in a given day and all of their emotional complexities. Sometimes we are their drive-thru therapist or sometimes we are their punching bag or sometimes they have us as an excuse to get angry at someone.

There have been many customers throughout history who have gotten upset at cashiers and service workers more generally because they also feel disempowered and not getting adequate support. And while this is unfortunate it does not justify furthering cycles of unsupportive behavior. But ultimately that’s what the system we live in does: further the cycles of unsupportive behaviors by ignoring the emotional labor that would normally help end these cycles.

Lastly, is the emotional labor we do at work reciprocal?

Well, if you’ve been following along so far you know the answer is: Probably not.

Most of the time, when I have problems at work or am having issues with customers, the emotional labor I’m giving in order to make all of this possible does not give me a good return. If my emotional labor was an investment that I could be making any money on or get some sort of interest on, it would be a very poor investment.

Again, the reciprocity is best among co-workers because they’ll understand better (likely the best) than the managers or the even the customers of what you’re going through. Managers are often too busy with the background operations to appreciate or sympathize and while they also are the bottom line for customers, the service workers are the front line.

Customers are often too upset or too busy with their own internal or external struggles to sympathize enough with whatever you, as a service worker, are going through. That’s not an entirely blameable attitude for the aforementioned reasons of how society works with regards to emotional labor at large, but it is lamentable and worth criticizing.

At the end of the day, emotional labor at work is, at best, morally conflicted and more often than not unethical when it is produced at work. That has to do mostly with the political climate under which work exists (capitalism) but it also has to do with the things Morrigan points out in their article, emotional labor is deeply devalued and we need to challenge that.

And part of challenging the devaluation of emotional labor means challenging, and ultimately abolishing, work.


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