Emotional Resilience Blog from The Fear Course

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Emotional Labour: Have you signed up to a hidden emotional contract at work?

Emotional Labour: Have you signed up to a hidden emotional contract at work?

People often think the concept of emotion regulation is something new and specific to things like anxiety or fear reduction or similar endeavours. The idea of emotion regulation, changing our emotions at will, is really old and actually happens all the time. Indeed most of the working population have unwittingly agreed and signed up to a hidden emotional contract, known by psychologists and sociologists as 'emotional labour'.

Emotional labour is the expectation by your employer and work colleagues that you will operate within certain emotional boundaries or with fairly narrow emotional latitude at work. So for example, in most workplaces, anger is not an accepted form of behaviour or display of emotion especially towards customers. Most people find themselves hiding irritation, anger, lust, and many other emotions in the work place. Just think about the range of emotions you go through at work and which of those emotions you display freely and which you wouldn't and which emotions if you did allow to be displayed would be severely career limiting.

In certain jobs, employees are expected and instructed to display certain emotions and only those emotions. For example hotel staff, waitresses, doctors etc. are all expected to behave in certain ways to their clients, customers and patients. In fact one of the biggest forms of complaints most professions suffer are because of employee 'attitude'.

Sometimes, as in the cases of waiters, public service employees such as nurses and police officers, doctors, judges, and so on there is a fairly explicit code of practice, which whist often not explicitly mentioning emotions, are very definitely aimed at emotion regulation and 'acceptable' displays of emotion. I remember a police colleague being admonished for walking along holding hands with his wife in the street whilst in uniform. This form of emotional labour is in the form of: If you want to continue getting paid you need to conform emotionally to our rules. Therefore we are paying you to regulate your emotions.

Often however emotional labour is implicit and part of the culture whereby most people at work are expected to behave in certain ways. To remain 'professional', which often means to regulate your emotions and behave within certain bounds and not display your true feelings, especially feelings like anger, or hate or lust or love.

The basic idea of emotional labour was introduced by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1983 in his book 'The Managed Heart: Commercialization of human feeling', in which he argues that employers control employees' emotions for their own purposes and profit, and as a consequence feelings actually come to belong to organisations rather than to us as individuals.

Later two researchers (Macdonald and Sirianni (1996)) start to use the term "emotional proletariat" meaning a whole raft of modern service workers who are explicitly required ti have a narrow band of positive emotions and only those emotions. Variance from this narrow band usually results in further 'training' or dismissal.

This form of emotional labour requiring emotion regulation and therefore emotional resilience, often goes beyond the workplace where if workers were to display their true unregulated emotions in the public, even if they were 'off duty' they would find themselves in trouble for bringing the organisation into disrepute.

So what are your hidden emotional contracts?

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Hochschild, Arlie (1979). "Emotion Work, Feeling Rules, and Social Structure". American Journal of Sociology 85 (3).
Hochschild, A. R. (1983). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Macdonald C.L & and Sirianni, C. (1996) Working in the Service Society. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.
Rafaeli, A. & Sutton, R. I. 1989. The expression of emotion in organizational life. Research in Organizational Behavior, 11, 1-43.


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