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Saturday 24 March 2018

Emotional Labour — What’s missing at work

Someone recently told me about a government worker who 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 worker 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.

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. Like farmers who disciplined their bodies for the hard physical labour of farming, scientists, lawyers and accountants disciplined their minds to explore and solve problems.

But it’s emotional labour that connects human beings to each other and to the real purpose of work— to make dreams come true and to help other human beings.

Emotional labour is the work that involves an authentic connecting with other people as a natural part of doing work.

Like physical labour there are jobs that are primarily about emotional labour eg waiters, nurses, and teachers. For these workers 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.

But It’s emotional labour being done whenever it’s clear that people care about the work they do—whatever the work. It’s emotional labour we’re acknowledging when we say we’ve received good service.

But what accounts for emotional labour? 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.

Can everyone do emotional labour? I think so. While some people are often better suited to jobs requiring high emotional labour eg teachers, nurses and priests, everyone is capable of caring about their job and about people. No one is unable to invest emotionally in their job.

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.

Caring is the secret source. When a fan asked Steve Jobs at a cocktail party what was the secret of Apple’s success, he reportedly thought for a moment and then said “I think you just have to care.”

Can people learn to 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 uncaring 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. In Maraval there is a nice free market example of what competition can do. With Massy stores, SuperPharm and Starlite Pharmacy all within walking distance (even for Trinis,) the workers at each are for the most part helpful, and personable. The employees at these three establishments put a higher level of emotional labour into their work because they’ve been made aware of the options customers have. And because workers can also literally start working across the street, managers have also raised their game to keep good workers.

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. Remind you of anyplace?

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. When that happens, simply let any affected person know you’re going through a bad day and you didn’t mean to be unkind or insensitive. That’s usually enough to transform bruised feelings into goodwill and even friendship.

A practice of reflecting on why you work and your connection with other people 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.

Peter Anthony Gales is a speaker, consultant and trainer who helps businesses realise human potential in the workplace.



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