Someone recounted an unkind incident to me recently. A govt worker was insensitive and cruel to an old lady who was alone and in need of help. Like a scene from a slavery or apartheid era movie, this woman thought it fit to speak in a condescending and accusing manner to a person who was merely trying to get her prescription filled.
It made me wonder how some people find themselves in jobs they are completely ill-suited to handle, and amazingly, even get promoted. This woman was a supervisor.
The three types of labour
There are three types of labour: physical, mental and emotional.
The first two we understand well. Construction workers and movers do physical labour and accountants and mathematicians do mental labour.
In mental labour it’s the mind doing the heavy lifting.
But it’s emotional labour that connects human beings to each other and to the reason work exists.
What is emotional labour
For emotional labourers like waiters, nurses, and teachers it is important their customers, students, clients and patients think they are doing a good job. It’s a natural part of their job to see that things are good with us before moving on.
It’s emotional labour being done when it’s clear that people care about the work they do. It’s emotional labour we’re acknowledging when we say we’ve received good service.
Where does it come from
It’s clear that some people are better suited to certain types of labour. I would make a lousy sumo wrestler or nuclear physicist.
My mom is great at emotional labour. She leads with her open heart, and she is naturally willing to hear your story. She puts emotional labour into everything she does, and people love her for it.
People who are good at emotional labour invest their hearts into their work because they know their work is important to their ambitions and to the concerns of other people.
They are clear that their work makes a difference in the lives of the people they touch, and because they have either a natural or learned connection to others, that’s important to them.
People who are unwilling to provide emotional labour often have victim mentalities and blame their undesired circumstances on other people.
When representatives of these ‘other’ people (rich, black, white, muslim, jew etc.) show up for their help, they find some way to punish them.
I think this was the case with this supervisor in the incident above.
Everyone can do emotional labour
No one is unable to invest emotionally in their job. While some people are often better suited to jobs requiring high emotional labour e.g. teachers, nurses and priests, everyone is capable of caring about their job and about people.
It’s a matter of willingness.
Bad emotional labourers are unwilling (not incapable) to invest their hearts into their jobs simply because they don’t care.
Yes, but such a transformation usually comes from a mountain top conversation with the big Guy or a crisis.
Nothing short of a crisis is likely to get people to suddenly care about the work they do and the people they interact with.
Strong free markets provide these crises by firing uncaring people. The competition that drives a strong and free marketplace simply weeds them out and forces them to adapt.
Bad emotional labourers can only thrive in monopolies or while protected by unions and political connections. These are the local markets where people complain about service.
Sometimes, because of the stresses of every day life, we can all simply forget our connection to other people and in those moments we can be unkind or abrupt.
Here’s a little exercise (prayer) from Harry Palmer that you can say every day or when you find yourself being short with your co-workers, customers, children or spouse.
It can help you (re-)create the caring context that brings emotional labour back to your work; the type of emotional labour that others will describe as excellent service.