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Deep acting at work could be a protective factor for employees in challenging situations, but it can also take a toll and lead to burnout.

How to let go of toxic workplace ‘emotional labour’

What will you leave behind in 2019? Here’s one suggestion: toxic workplace emotional labour.

If you’re an administrator or manager, you may have influence over that not only for you but for employees in your sphere of influence.

As an education researcher, I have studied the emotional labour of women in schools to learn more about the embodied manifestation of emotional labour and how it shows up in people advocating change.

Talk about emotional labour has come into common societal use particularly as part of a discussion of gender equality. For example, a Harper’s Bazaar article that went viral last year dubbed emotional labour, “the unpaid job men still don’t understand.”

But I want to talk about emotional labour from a sociological perspective, where the construct itself is gender neutral and can provide either protective or destructive outcomes for all employees.

A popular dictionary of business and management defined emotional labour as “the work of managing one’s emotions in the course of dealings with customers or employees.”

Indeed, “emotional labour” was first proposed not as unpaid labour, but particularly as an organizational construct related to paid work. In her 1983 book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, sociologist Arlie Hochschild described insights after spending months interviewing flight attendants (a job she once held).

These employees were expected by both the organization and customers to display the persona of the positive, happy flight attendant. The profession required them to provide emotional labour — the expression of only appropriate and organizationally approved emotions while engaged in job duties. This labour was particularly taxing when faced with disgruntled, rude or angry passengers.

Recently, these ideas have been applied to other domestic and service-oriented fields. In my education research, I have examined how emotions are expected to be managed as a part of employment, and what situations generate emotional labour.

Emotional labour at work is not simply the act of suppressing or expressing emotions while working. Rather, emotional labour involves regulating appropriate or inappropriate emotional expression in response to what sociologists call “organizational feeling rules:” the range of feelings and feeling expression deemed acceptable in a variety of work situations.

Hochschild suggested that a key element of emotional labour was the presence of deep or superficial acting.

In my research, I have examined how deep acting at work could be a protective factor for school employees in challenging situations — but also, what the costs are. Left unnoticed or untreated, these costs can become toxic, leading to deep burnout.

Professionalism or emotional labour?

Every work milieu has unspoken organizational expectations of “professionalism.” In many educational organizations, professionalism is defined as being calm and in control in the face of complexity and instability. What this means in a practical setting is that an individual’s inner turmoil is masked and managed to present the expected emotions, potentially to the detriment of the employee’s well-being.

In the educational profession, a teacher who identifies as a “good” teacher can draw strength and resolve from that belief if faced with struggling students displaying disruptive behaviour.

Thinking, “I am a good teacher – I am positive, kind and calm with all students,” reflects deep acting in which the individual’s personal identity aligns with professional feeling rules.

Extended, ongoing superficial acting, on the other hand, could be problematic.

When individual employees’ actual emotional responses do not align with the organization’s feeling rules, employees have to work to manage their emotions. The psychological effort generated by superficial acting could result in emotional burnout or explosive emotional outbursts.

Elsa, in the children’s movie Frozen, revealed the toxicity of extended superficial acting in the well-known lyrics to the song Let it Go:

“Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know

Well, now they know!

Let it go…”

The character Elsa from the children’s movie Frozen, pictured here on the top left, epitomized the toxicity of extended superficial acting in the song ‘Let it Go.’

Emotional labour in schools

I sought to discover the immediate emotional and embodied experiences of five women who were involved in implementing a new school framework. Their work involved reforming school culture to put students’ well-being at the centre of all curricular decisions, assessment practices and environmental or building changes. The women occupied different roles (student teacher, educational assistant, teacher, school leader and system leaders such as consultants, trustees or subject-area specialists).

One of my participants described an experience she had with emotional labour. In her role as an assistant principal, she kept calm during a difficult meeting with an upset parent by tightly gripping the edge of her school desk.

Inwardly, she was screaming, “How dare you speak to me like that!” But outwardly, maintained a poised and attentive facade until the meeting was complete.

After the parent left, the school leader described feeling dejected, frustrated and empty, yet she still had to continue with her daily responsibilities. She used superficial acting to present the image of the “good” administrator, burying her anger until leaving the school that evening when she finally felt safe to express it.

Another participant in my research study equated the experience of emotional labour with responding to a first aid emergency. While dealing with difficult situations, she buried her own emotions of fear and anxiety to present a compassionate face. But immediately after the situation had passed, she longed for time and quiet space to release her repressed feelings.

Unfortunately, her school did not have the physical space for staff members to privately release their emotions. Instead, she only had time to take a deep breath, smile and teach her next physical education class.

Validate heart work

Possible solutions to problematic emotional labour are two-fold. First, organizational members should recognize which emotions are expected to be managed as a part of employment, and be aware of situations that generate intensified emotional labour.

Second, people in leadership roles should provide appropriate avenues for the safe expression of organizationally inappropriate emotions after difficult situations.

Simply asking the question: “Are you OK? Do you need time, a space or a person to talk to right now?” can go a long way to minimizing the effect of highly charged emotional labour.

Validating the heart work of educators can reconnect them to their passions to persevere with superficial acting during emotionally difficult times. The protective factor of deep acting can re-charge people after difficult workplace incidents if they are processing their feelings and tapping into their creative energy.

Recognizing educators for their positive influence on students and colleagues can help them manage experiences with emotional labour. To care for their emotional well-being, providing them with some time, private space or access to a trusted colleague will help them to “let it go.”

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