As I watch all the academic twitter conversations about transitioning to remote teaching and generally figuring out how we live and work in pandemic conditions, I see a lot of people being surprised at how tired they are. Emotional labour is a big part of why.
It is easy to dismiss emotional work.
This kind of work is coded feminine in our culture and is often ignored. Look at wages for care work, especially care work mostly done by women, for some evidence of the social value we give it. It tends to be consider “unskilled” labour. If talked about at all in relation to better paid professions, it will likely be coded as “soft skills”.
Emotional labour is part of your academic job. The most obvious place you do this is in advising students. In the UK your role may be called “personal tutor”. In other countries it is more likely to fall under “advising”. Some of that work is about helping students make good choices about their programme options. But a lot of it is about dealing with the academic consequences of various crises, large and small. Most of the time it’s time missed and extensions needed because of illness or maybe a death in the family. Sometimes it’s more complicated. It all involves emotional labour.
Emotional labour is also involved in supervising (post)graduate students, and your regular teaching. Some of that labour is labour you do to manage your own emotions so you are “professional” in those contexts. Some of it is about managing the emotions they bring into the room so that the work of learning can happen. You also do this work in meetings, most noticeably when you don’t lash out at your colleague in a department meeting but also in many other less obvious ways.
Please don’t think of this work as the annoying stuff that prevented you from getting to your real work. This is part of your real work.
Emotional labour is skilled work
Despite the tendency to dismiss it as something some people (mostly women) are just naturally good at, there is real skill involved in this work. The fact that it may feel natural to you just means that you have learned these skills so well you are able to use them without a lot of conscious thought. The classic study often referred to in relation to emotional labour is The Managed Heart by Arlie Hochschild, first published in 1983. She studied the training regimes for airline cabin crew and noted that a large proportion of the work they are trained to do is emotional labour, to manage both their own emotions and to manage the emotional landscape of the planeload of passengers. Yes, they need to learn safety procedures, how to securely stow and serve meals and drinks, and so on. They also learn how to manage emotions.
It occurs to me that we also train those in male dominated professions in emotional labour. While police training is often portrayed in terms of fitness training, shooting ranges, and learning a lot about the law, there is an important area of police practice that is emotional labour: de-escalation. This mostly gets discussed publicly when it doesn’t happen and police are considered to have used excessive force, especially if that leads to death. De-escalation is emotional labour. It involves the police officer managing their own emotions so they remain calm and do not use their considerable physical and weapons skills unnecessarily. It also involves the police officer managing the emotions of the person or people they are interacting with to try to calm them down so force isn’t needed.
The important point is that we routinely train people in various professions in how to do emotional labour. We have policies about the use of emotional labour just like we have policies about the use of force. We evaluate people’s performance based on their emotional skills. It’s just that we mostly don’t call it that. We call it interpersonal communication, or de-escalation, or safety procedures, or people management, or something else. But it’s all emotional labour.
Emotional labour is valuable
The fact that we train people to do it, build it into work processes, and evaluate people on it (even if we call it something else) also signals the value this labour produces. If you enjoy your flight you are more likely to book another one with that airline. If you can manage the emotional landscape of a classroom, students will learn more. If you can stay calm and focused in meetings and contribute to an environment in which everyone else is calm and focused the meeting will take less time and be more productive.
There are a whole host of reasons why that value (and the skills it involves) may or may not be recognised financially or with other markers of status. That is frustrating (and wrong) but, for my purpose here, a side issue.
Emotional labour requires energy
Not only does it involve skills that you can teach, and add value that you can evaluate in terms of outcomes, it also requires energy. There is a reason you are so tired. I held an Office Hour in the Academic Writing Studio last Friday and afterwards I was very tired and emotionally drained. I felt teary. I ate dinner with my family and then ran a bath, put some Epsom salts in it, and lay in the bath reading a book. I did not have energy to play board games. I do not resent having done the emotional labour I did for the Studio members that attended. This is part of what they pay me for. But it was real work and I needed real recovery time afterwards.
If you are wondering why you are so tired these days, this is a big part of why. A lot of the work you are doing right now, especially in the transition, is emotional work. You are dealing with your own emotions. You are trying to remain calm while you are dealing with your students. You are dealing with a lot of emotionally heavy communication with students as they try to figure out what they need to do. You are dealing with the emotions of colleagues which are affecting meetings, how you are being managed, or how people are reacting to the situation in general.
When your students and colleagues start getting sick, or when those close to them start getting sick, you will be doing even more emotional labour. One of the Studio members reported that a friend of hers is in ICU being treated for COVID right now. This is really difficult stuff.
You are also doing more emotional labour at home as you help your kids (if you have them) deal with the crisis, adjust to all of you living and working in the same space 24/7, and so on. Even if your marriage is strong and your relationship with your kids is good (which it isn’t for everyone), it is really hard to spend every hour of every day with those people. Even the introverts are realising how much social time they had in a typical day and what a difference it makes not to have it.
Start including emotional labour in your reviews of what you’ve done
Whether you are reviewing your day, your week, or your month, don’t just add up classes taught, exams graded, articles written, and grants applied for. Don’t treat days when very little of those things happened as “wasted”. Make sure to include reassuring students, and other emotional labour as real tasks with real value. Make sure you plan time to do those things when you are planning. Make sure to plan recovery time in, too. If you know that managing a classroom leaves you emotionally exhausted, plan to have some time alone afterwards to recuperate before you do the next big thing.
Recovery time might look like crying. In the bath. In the shower. In your bedroom. It’s okay to cry.
If you struggle with some parts of your work because you lack skills, figure out how to learn the skills you need. Remember that they may be called things like interpersonal communication, or violence prevention, or managing people. There is nothing wrong with you if you don’t have them. Some people seem to pick up some of these skills without realizing they are learning them. Others need to be taught explicitly. People vary.
Also remember that therapists (a job that is all emotional labour) have therapists. We all need someone who can help support us through this emotional stuff. Emotional labour isn’t something we are trying to eliminate from our work and lives. It is something we need to acknowledge and support. If the people who give you emotional support do not live with you, then figure out how to transition that work to remote working. And remind them to ensure they’ve got their emotional supports in place, too. We all need to do this work for each other, especially during a pandemic.
Emotional labour is real work. It involves skills which can be learned and taught. It adds value. It requires energy. You can do this. You don’t have to stay strong 24/7.
Affective Labor: The need for, and cost of, workplace equanimity by Lee Skallerup Bessette at Educause Review
Grief and academia by Katy Peplin at Thrive PhD
Audio version added 9 April 2020.