New Republic has an interesting piece on how corporations enforce ‘emotional labour’ in their workforce – checking that they are being sufficiently passionate about their work and caring to their customers.
It focuses on the UK sandwich chain Pret who send a mystery shopper to each outlet weekly and “If the employee who rings up the sale is appropriately ebullient, then everyone in the shop gets a bonus. If not, nobody does.”
The concept of ‘emotional labour‘ was invented by sociologist Arlie Hochschild who used it to describe how some professions require people to present as expressing certain emotions regardless of how they feel.
The idea is that the waiter who smiles and tells you to ‘have a nice day’ doesn’t really feel happy to see you and doesn’t particularly care how your day will go, but he’s asked to present as if he does anyway.
The idea has now moved on and this particular example is considered ‘surface acting’ or ‘surface emotional labour’ while ‘deep acting’ or ‘deep emotional labour’ is where the person genuinely feels the emotions. A nurse, for example, is required to be genuinely caring during his or her job.
‘Surface emotional labour’ is known to be particularly difficult when it conflicts too much with what you really feel. This ‘emotional dissonance’ leads to burnout, low mood and poor job satisfaction. In contrast, ‘deep emotional labour’ is linked to higher job satisfaction.
The New Republic article links to a deleted but still archived list of ‘Pret behaviours’ written by the company to state what is expected of the employees.
Apart from some classic corporate doublethink (‘Don’t want to see: Uses jargon inappropriately; Pret perfect: Communicates upwards honestly’) you can see how the company is trying to shift their employees from doing ‘surface emotional labour’ to ‘deep emotional labour’.
Don’t want to see: Does things only for show Want to see: Is enthusiastic Pret perfect! Loves food
Cynics would suggest this is a form of corporate indoctrination but you could also see it as part of drive for employee well-being. You say tomato, I say “smell that Sir – wonderful isn’t it? Fresh tomatoes from the hills of Italy”.
Those of a political bent might notice an echo of Marx’s theory of alienation which suggests that capitalism necessarily turns workers into mechanistic processes that alienate them from their own humanity.
However, the concept of ‘deep emotional labour’ is really where the approach can start becoming unhelpful as it has the capacity to denigrate genuine compassion as ‘required labour’. I doubt many nurses go into their profession intending to ‘monetize their emotions’ or feel they have been ‘alienated’ from their compassion.
And as armies are loathe to admit, soldiers serve for their country but fight for their platoon mates. Is this really a form of ‘deep emotional labour’ or it is just another job where emotions are central?
Link to New Republic piece ‘Labor of Love’.