Call It What It Is: Emotional Labor

Written by
Lee Skallerup Bessette

Oct 4, 2021

Oct 4, 2021 • by Lee Skallerup Bessette

On August 25th, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article titled, “The Great Disillusionment,” highlighting all the reasons why staff and faculty are either considering leaving or have already left working in higher education. Terms like “burnout,” “overwork” and “undercompensated” are used frequently. Graphs and charts illustrate how feeling like you have a larger purpose is no longer enough to keep you working in academia.

The content of the article was of no surprise to me. For the past year, I have been writing a series of “advice” columns for CHE from a staff member’s perspective stating almost exactly what was being expressed in “The Great Disillusionment.” What was missing, however, from this article was actually naming the kind of labor that has led to this exodus of staff and faculty. More often than not in my columns, I do identify the culprit of this dissatisfaction and burnout, as well as the reason for job departure: affective and emotional labor.

Emotional Labor

In her groundbreaking book, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (1983), sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild defines emotional labor as work that is done to “induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.” Her book is foundational for understanding emotional and affective labor. It also perfectly names the kind of work that those interviewed for “The Great Disillusionment” were describing that was most difficult, most taxing and most likely to drive them out of higher education.

Certainly, this kind of work has long been integral to higher education; we know that students persist and succeed because of the relationships with members of the campus community outside of their peer group. Relationships take emotional work, but are part of what makes working on campus so rewarding.

We mentor, supervise, council, teach, tutor and generally build long-lasting connections with students. We collaborate with colleagues in our own units and across units, and these collaborations also require a level of affective labor—work that once again can and has been rewarding.

The Negative Side of Affective Labor

There has always been a negative side to affective labor, especially for staff, the work of managing your own emotions in the face of those who can’t or won’t manage their own emotions when interacting with you.

On the negative side, there is the faculty member who treats staff like “the help” or the administrator who doesn’t understand your role, but blames you for some mishap. Then there’s the student whose life is falling apart in front of you, and you are powerless to do anything about it. You take the good, you take the bad, but when the latter starts overwhelming the former, the work of emotional and affective labor becomes too much.

COVID-19 and the pandemic upped the demand for affective and emotional labor on the part of staff in particular: We were on the front lines of supporting both students and faculty in the transition to remote learning and then the transition back to campus. And we did all of this while having to deal with the pandemic everyone else was dealing with as well. We put aside our fears, our stress, our uncertainty and anxiety to help our faculty and students through their own fears, stresses, uncertainties and anxieties. And we did an amazing job.

But that work, that affective and emotional labor remained unspoken, invisible and unacknowledged.

Name It

Which is what made the recent article in CHE so galling and frustrating. It talks around the work we do, but it still refuses to properly name it as work, and not just work, but a specific type of work that has for too long been at best elided, at worst, completely ignored. But it does have a name as I have already noted: affective and emotional labor. We need to start consistently identifying it, naming it, acknowledging it and compensating for it.

Just before the pandemic hit in March 2020, I had submitted a manuscript for an edited volume entitled, Affective Labor and Alt-Ac Careers to the University Press of Kansas. Little did I know that this work I had done, that all the contributors had done, would be key to understanding why we were all so burned out and exhausted.

The book is scheduled to come out in March 2022; I am in the process of recording a companion podcast series where I talk with each of the contributors. I ask each of them four basic questions: Why did you write your chapter?  How have things changed (or not) from what you wrote prior to COVID-19? Where do we go from here with regards to affective and emotional labor? What would you like to see happen moving forward?

You’ll have to tune in to the podcast releases in January 2022 to hear the answers to the first two questions. But although I haven’t recorded episodes with all of the contributors yet, the answer to the third question so far is unanimous: Stop ignoring and erasing affective and emotional labor, recognize it and create mechanisms to support it.

The more we name it, the more we see it. The more we see it, the more we recognize it. The more we recognize it, the more we truly understand just how important that work is to the success of our students and our institutions. The more we understand its importance, the more likely it is that we will build support systems for those doing this important work.

Emotional and affective labor is essential for keeping our institutions running smoothly and effectively. Without it, academia would literally fall apart. We need to start recognizing the importance of this work and the people who perform it.