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6 March 2019

How emotional labour harms us all

Workers are put at high risk of anxiety and burnout, while consumers are emboldened to behave aggressively. 

By Sophie McBain

You’ve passed through several automatic switchboards, listened to tinny music on hold for 30 minutes and then finally – finally! – you are through to an actual human being. “Yes, hi!” you say, louder than you had intended. “This is the third time I’ve called. I cancelled my contract three months ago but you keep on charging my account.”

The person on the end of the phone has not personally been taking these payments, but they won’t correct you. “I am so sorry,” they reply, though it’s not their fault. “It will be my pleasure to assist you today,” though of course it is not. They can tell that you are impatient and angry. They are probably wondering if at some point you’ll unleash a torrent of abuse.

In 1983 the sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term “emotional labour” to describe how human emotions become commodities in a service economy, as managers set rules for how employees must express their feelings. Many jobs now require workers to suppress their true emotions, perhaps by maintaining an attitude of permanent good cheer, total unflappability or polite subservience, even when confronted with rude and aggressive customers. Hochschild observed the heavy psychological toll it exerts on workers to control their emotional lives in this way.

In the decades since, the proportion of workers in jobs that require high levels of emotional labour has only gone up. According to the Office for National Statistics, 80 per cent of the UK labour force is now employed in the service economy. In London, it’s 91 per cent. These days, high street coffee shops and fast food chains compete for customers by trying to offer the quirkiest, bubbliest service.

We might have to blame the growing luxury market for rising expectations among other consumers too, argued a 2013 article on Pret a Manger in the US magazine the New Republic. “The more the rich get used to fawning service, the more the rest of us… find we rather like it, too. Eventually everybody will have to act like a goddamned concierge.” It’s easy to see how the practice spreads. If Pret “fusses over you like the mâitre d’ at Alain Ducasse”, you might feel affronted the next time someone thrusts a £5 panini at you while shouting “next”. 

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Modern technology also enables employers, and consumers, to monitor and rate service workers’ behaviour in more detail. One Japanese company now uses facial recognition software to measure its employees’ smiles. The rating systems used by platforms such as Uber and TaskRabbit mean that gig workers can be penalised by customers for not displaying the right demeanour. Uber drivers, for example, can lose their jobs if their ratings fall too low.

In a 2015 article for the journal Organizational Behaviour a group of psychologists presented the “modest proposal” that employers should abandon emotional labour requirements at work and instead focus on reforms that promote genuine well-being. The authors, led by Alicia Grandey, an expert in emotional labour based at Pennsylvania State University, wrote that “emotional labour violates basic human rights for decent work”.

Research has shown that workers in jobs that demand emotional labour are at high risk of anxiety and burnout. Stress at work often affects their personal lives since, having been forced to grin all day, they arrive home emotionally depleted. It’s a depressing irony that workers are being forced to project ever more enthusiasm and happiness at work while their jobs become ever more financially precarious. Among high-skilled workers, such as managers or nurses, compensation often rises in jobs that require more emotional labour – but for lower-skilled service jobs the reverse is true.

If this doesn’t persuade you to abandon the demand for “service with a smile”, consider what corporate culture does to us as consumers, too. If you’re not the one frothing cappuccinos like there’s nothing you’d rather do in the world, the chances are you’re the Pret a Manger princeling or Starbucks tsarina who’s watching. The mantra that the “customer is always right” disinhibits consumers, emboldening them to behave aggressively or rudely. It’s easy to wonder why your waiter seems so unapologetic about bringing you the wrong soup, far harder to scrutinise why you’re so unreasonably upset about it.

This article appears in the 06 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The next crash