Emotions are included

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’.

For example:

  • 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’.

    11 thoughts on “Emotions are included”

    1. Well, that has helped me to redouble my resolve never to go into a Pret a Manger. To say what I feel about this would require an essay but it is utterly chilling. Lets hear it for the miserable sods working in greasy spoons at least they are authentic human beings.

    2. This is hardly limited to chain restaurants or profit-making companies. The same is true of public school teachers. “I am excited to see you all for another day of learning.”

      Perhaps it is one reason there is so much burnout.

    3. I wouldn’t read this as “required labour”.

      Worker behavior is hard to monitor. How do you know that the worker is being care with the merchandise even when you can’t observe her? How do you know that the cashier is smiling – and making customers feel better – even when the customer is timid and unlikely to complain (but likely to never come back)? How do you know the nurse will replace everyone’s bedpans on time – and spare helpless and clueless people hours of misery – even when her supervisor is on leave?

      Workers that are genuinely and emotionally connected to their job are more likely to do all these things. The trick then is to find the ones who are connected. The performance reviews of Pret etc (see article) is thus a way of separating the wheat from the chaff. You aren’t “required” to feel deeply, but rewarded with this high paying job if you do. Less emotional workers can take their labour to places that cares less about such feelings, pays workers less and charge customers lower prices. Some restaurants hire the best chefs. McDonald’s isn’t one of them. There’s space for everyone.

      A modern sociologist may disagree, and insist that all types of labour are “produced” – i.e. created – by the system. That may well be true but (a) this is the reason that the system produces such labour, (b) so is it really such a bad thing?

      @Todd Not all corporations; there’s certainly something unusual about a coder for Valve (makers of Half Life and Portal) who isn’t deeply invested in his job.

    4. Just to make my comment a little clearer: it is not the case that *all* organisations will demand emotional labour; some will and they’ll pay a premium for it. Others won’t, and will get (less enthu) labour for less. The first will also be the type of org that charges higher prices.

    5. Is this the “flair” in the movie “Office Space” which waiters are required to display, in the form of large numbers of cutesy badges?

      … omg, this explains those scarily friendly folks at T2.

    6. I’ve just retired from 30 years on a job in which a large part of my actual paid duties were expressing falsified emotions: it stipulates this in the contract. On the other hand, I had a very deep emotional connection to the work itself and rather enjoyed the falsified emotion part.

      Yes: singing opera! Humans have this strange relationship with emotions: produce them on demand, and be handsomely paid to make others feel their own emotions: that’s showbiz, folks!

      I could pride myself on being able to express an emotion on command, but find the scripted enthusiasm of e.g.Pret employess to be horrific…is there a contradiction here?

    7. Wow, so many factors to consider though. Just personal observation, the places I frequent where workers are paid well and have good insurance show workers smiling ear to ear. No, good pay will not encourage inherent emotional connection to the job. At the same time there’s those studies which show money can’t buy happiness except when it raises someone from poverty to a livable situation. Hard to be joyful when you’re coming home to an apartment with no heat or electricity, eh?

    8. Plus making them tell marketing lies: “Fresh tomatoes from the hills of Italy”. could only be said with any truth in those same hills (why hills?) the truth here would be “picked a week ago, shipped, carted around, sold at wholesale, sold at retail and left in the kitchen until we get round to it”…..in the days of domestic servitude, maids and others whose duties involved answering the door to callers were allowed to say “not available” instead of “not at home” if (knowing to the contrary), their consciences would have been outraged by a lie direct. How many employees have to lie their way (in words, deeds or expressions)through the day now?

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