Emotional workers thrive with nurturing of soft skills

Journalist Livia Gershon looks at the rising prominence of emotional labor and how workers can thrive in this demanding, but rewarding work.

Photo- Shutterstock

WorkingNation welcomes journalist Livia Gershon as our featured columnist for August. This is the first in a series of four articles from Gershon, whose previous work can be read in HuffPost, Aeon and Vice. 

Gershon examines the rising role of “emotional labor” in response to the displacement of workers due to automation. With manual labor increasingly being done by robots, what types of work will exist for displaced workers in an aging populace? Gershon suggests that jobs caring for each other, which requires more emotional skills, will present opportunities as well as challenges in the future.

Livia Gershon.

Say you’re a roofer. Your job takes physical strength and expertise, and the ability to endure blistering sun. But at the end of the day, you’ve made something strong and useful.

Now, say you work with spreadsheets. Sometimes it’s pretty boring, but sometimes you have to get creative to solve the problems you’re given. You don’t care too much about your company’s overall mission, but it’s a nice feeling to finish a big project or get a thank-you message from your supervisor.

Ok, now you’re a nursing home aide, working on the dementia unit. Sometimes you can say a kind word to someone who’s scared and vacant and confused, and suddenly they’re present in the room with you again. Sometimes a resident dies, and you wonder if you did everything you could have for them. And then you have to go see what the next person needs.

Emotional labor, an ever-increasing part of the economy in an era when many other jobs are being automated, is complicated. Compared with physical or intellectual labor, its rewards may be bigger—even life-changing.

But, in some ways, it can be harder for workers than the most grueling manual or cognitive tasks. Customer service representatives need to react calmly in the face of unreasonable rage. Department supervisors have to support new hires, sensitively correct their mistakes, and break the news when corporate announces layoffs. Pediatric intensive care nurses have to find the words to talk with the parents of dying children.

Arlie Hochschild. Photo – MIT News

What makes some people thrive in these kinds of jobs while others burn out and leave? In part, it has to do with how they go about performing the emotional duties of their jobs. In 1983 when sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term emotional labor—describing jobs where workers have to adjust their own emotional affect to serve their customers—she suggested that they may use two different methods. They can simply fake the emotion, or they can use Stanislavski-style “deep acting,” making an effort to really experience the appropriate feeling.

Since then, researchers have found that workers with a strong ability to recognize and work with emotions tend to use deep acting. Those less gifted in emotional intelligence use surface acting, which—as you’ll recognize if you’ve ever spent a couple of hours making small talk with people you can’t stand—is emotionally exhausting. It also doesn’t lend itself to good job performance.

Recognizing this issue, a whole host of human resource professionals and executive consultants have popped up in recent years, promising to school us in emotional intelligence and empathy. You can hone your emotional skills by practicing mindfulness exercises, learning about your own brain functions, or reading literature that explores diverse human experiences.

There’s evidence that at least some of these do work. Studies have found training programs can improve emotional intelligence by teaching people about emotional skills and giving them a chance to practice.

But helping workers develop emotional capacities only goes so far. Exercising these skills depends on circumstances at work.

That’s particularly clear from the example of the archetypal emotional worker, the nurse. Looking at 16 ethnographic studies from Australian, Europe, and North America, a team of UK nursing and health researchers found that nurses see personal connections with their patients as a key to providing good care.

A nurse’s skill set involves more than just medical training. Photo- Shutterstock

“The connections between patients and nurses is perceived to be dependent on the nurse’s ability to be ‘present’ in the relationship, that is to bring aspects of themselves to the relationship,” they wrote, “To expose themselves fully to the patient’s and their own experiences, to be open and truthful in their dealings and to be generous in committing to the patient’s best interests.”

When nurses successfully form these authentic relationships, they tend to find deep satisfaction and a sense of purpose in their work. In Hochschild’s terms, using deep acting, or, even better, simply displaying their real emotional responses, is key to their success and happiness.

But the studies found that there were many circumstances where nurses found it impossible to engage in that personal way. Sometimes, staffing levels were too low for them to spend time with patients, particularly on units caring for older patients and patients with dementia.

“Talking to patients is important,” one nurse told a researcher. “But there has to be opportunities to communicate and that is the problem. As a nurse, you feel ill at ease with that lack of time… You aren’t able to be there for your patient.”

Nurses also said they lost connections with patients when they weren’t able to successfully give them the care they wanted. Often, this had to do with doctors prioritizing curative treatments over less invasive kinds of care that patients told nurses they would prefer. One nurse recalled a time when a physician inserted a tube into a patient’s vein against her wishes.

“It all happened very quickly,” she said. “It wasn’t until after the look crossed her face that I realized how violated she felt… It was a time when I should have been the patient’s advocate, and I wasn’t on my toes… she never fully trusted me again.”

When nurses aren’t able to deliver care the way they feel they should, they often end up feeling guilty and frustrated, leading to emotional burnout. Some said they felt they had to “switch off” and stop building personal relationships with patients to protect themselves, switching to surface acting.

The same kind of dynamic applies in other jobs that demand emotional engagement. Surveys have found that a majority of teachers say an excessive focus on standardized tests and standardized curricula makes it hard to connect with students and drains their enthusiasm for teaching. A study of California social workers found that those who reported having less autonomy on the job and less social support were most likely to want to leave the profession.

As jobs that demand emotional skills become a bigger part of our economy, these workers need job conditions that let them do the best job they can—and continue doing it for years to come. That means giving them a voice in the way their jobs are structured and letting them have the freedom to unleash their full potential as caring human beings.

Join the Conversation: What do you think about the increasing presence and value of emotional labor in the workforce? Tell us on our Facebook page.

Coming Next Week: Gershon examines whether our education system is preparing students for a future where emotional skills are becoming more vital in the workplace.

Connect with Livia, via Twitter. Read her latest articles on her website.

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