A Background to “How to Build a Compassionate Workplace”
You’ve read “How to Build a Compassionate Workplace” and have questions about one branch of othering: emotional labor. This article is intended to provide background and resources to support you. It also provides resource to help you understand complex workplace dynamics involving emotional labor and the role it plays in othering our colleagues. So, let’s go just a little bit deeper in the time it might take you to finish your morning tea.
There are many reasons governments, communities, and individuals will other a group of people, such as to maintain power of the dominant group. You may be familiar with the modern question about whether Latinx individuals (defined as the gender-neutral term used to refer to people of Latin American cultural or ethnic identity in the U.S.) should be considered white. We broaden who is considered part of the dominant race in order to maintain that dominance and to other everyone else. Another example? Before, and even after, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many African Americans were subjected to literacy tests in order to vote, while their white counterparts were not required to submit to such tests as a tactic to prevent African Americans from exercising their right to vote. They were singled out because of the color of their skin and denied full rights.
When we understand the term othering and how othering is put into action within such egregious examples, it’s with the hope that we can begin to apply that understanding to different, less shocking scenarios in my previous article. We can begin to see how an individual who has an identifier (a characteristic or trait unique to their identity) that others don’t share and is asked about that identifier—accompanied by the assumption that they will answer the question—can experience a range of emotional responses: Anger, frustration, fatigue, and so on.
What’s Emotional Labor?
In her 2018 article in The Atlantic, “The Concept Creep of ‘Emotional Labor,’ Julie Beck outlines how the term emotional labor has gained in popularity over the years. She also notes that because of that popularity, the term has expanded to encompass so much more than originally intended.
Indeed, the term has become a catchall for work we have to do because no one else will, or work we do for which we don’t receive recognition. According to Beck, when sociologist Arlie Hothschild first coined the term, emotional labor was originally defined as, “the work of managing one’s own emotions that was required by certain professions.” Imagine the waitress who tolerates obscene jokes or the court reporter who maintains a neutral expression while transcribing a difficult hearing. Beck notes that a common, broader definition of emotional labor in use today is the one articulated by Gemma Hartley as the combination of emotion management and life management. It is, Hartley says, “the unpaid, invisible work” that women do “to keep those around us comfortable and happy.”
In today’s workforce, you can think of emotional labor as the smile you have to put on your face before you walk through the door of your office into an environment where people do not really see you, or the neutral face you must maintain when someone in your office is being tone deaf. And today, emotional labor is foisted upon all genders. Ever heard of the term “grin and bear it”? Have you ever had to grin and bear it? Think about that for a moment. Think about how that felt at the time. Hold that for a moment as you read on. Moreover, if you’ve never had to grin and bear it while at work, think about that for a moment, too.
The Role Emotional Labor Plays in the Workplace
Although the term “emotional labor” was coined by Hochschild in 1983, I have often remarked to friends and peers that we didn’t encounter its use when we first entered the workforce, though we most definitely felt its effects. Maybe we didn’t get the Hochschild memo! Today, the term is much more common and gives us all a vocabulary for communicating how we feel when we are asked to engage in a specific kind of labor in the workplace. It’s important to know these distinctions and definition of emotional labor so that when they appear in your workplace—and they will—you can identify what really is going on. A staffer complaining about a particular task they don’t like to do is very different from asking the only person on the team younger than 30 to consistently make the coffee. The latter takes a different toll.
Spoiler alert: Building a culture where everyone has an equal opportunity to communicate how specific situations make them feel to their manager or supervisor and to peers—and be heard—is one of the key ways for people to process emotional labor in the workplace. And listening to people’s perspectives is also how you can begin to make corrections or amendments when necessary. To maintain and improve healthy relationships, teams have to feel comfortable communicating clearly and directly one another.
- If you’re not familiar with the term othering or with the intentionality underlying the line of questioning described in my previous article that may fall under the category of emotional labor, you might take a look at john a powell’s 2017 article “Us vs them: the sinister techniques of ‘Othering’– and how to avoid them.” In it, powell, who leads the UC Berkeley Othering and Belonging Institute, talks about how groups are othered in an attempt to deny full rights to those particular groups.
- I highly recommend the podcast, “Radical Candor,” hosted by Kim Scott and Jason Rosoff (based on a book by the same name) that discusses techniques on how to care deeply about your team—and hold your team accountable to achieving work goals.
- I also highly recommend reading some of the many articles about how to be an ally. Conduct a search. There are loads of resources, and like this article, that you can add to your toolbox for understanding—because there’s never a finish line when it comes to understanding. I will say, of the articles I’ve read, many offer the suggestion of just listening as a first, gentle step to becoming an ally.
Regina Anderson joined Food Recovery Network as the Executive Director in 2015 and is responsible for setting the vision, strategy, and fundraising efforts for The Food Recovery Network. Regina works with the amazing team, stakeholders, and partners around the country to achieve ambitious goals. For over a decade, Regina has worked in the nonprofit sector, committed to social justice issues, because she believes it is in this sector that she can make the biggest difference and that people are the engines of positive change. Regina received her MA in Literary and Cultural Studies from Carnegie Mellon University and her BA in English Literature from the University of Maine at Augusta. Regina loves to garden, hike, travel and cook meals with friends. She also loves to collaborate to make big ideas a reality!
Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.