Are you in an industry that requires emotional labour? If you require (explicitly or otherwise) your employees to be empathetic towards their customers then you do. But what does this mean in practice and if you aren’t using it should you be?

Emotional labour is defined as “a requirement of a job that employees display required emotions toward customers or others” and was first coined by Arlie Hochschild in her book1 The Managed heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling published in 1979. The sorts of roles that this would typically apply to would be flight attendants, health care professionals, call centre workers, teachers and care home workers.

It was this latter group of people that a recent report looked at in detail in relation to their use of emotional labour. Report2 author Eleanor Johnson from the School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University speaking to the BBC said one care home she visited said “that carers were expected to be emotionally involved in their work. The company encouraged the care workers to develop a genuine emotional bond with the residents and to treat them like they were members of their own family”.

Johnson went on to say that the company suggested that the “biggest rewards of working there would be the hugs from the residents and the thank yous from the families and they called these hugs and thank you the second paycheck which was quite problematic because, obviously, having this second paycheck kind of allowed them to justify their actual paycheck being a lot lower.”

This emotional tie also led to negative effects for the staff. Johnson again: “(the) emotional aspects of their work resulted in them becoming quite distressed when residents were unwell or they passed away and made them find excuses for the residents aggression at times and it also caused them to give up their time voluntarily so often they would come in after work or they would stay after hours to look after the residents.”

Clearly there is a balance that needs to be struck between the needs of the employer to require employees to have empathy with customers but at the same time it needs to also take the well being of the employee into account too.

1. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling

2. The business of care: the moral labour of care workers. Eleanor K. Johnson School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, UK

Photo: MyFuture via Flickr

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