At the start of the pandemic, many of us gained a new appreciation for the workers who keep the world going. Customers thanked supermarket staff, applauded delivery vans and pasted rainbows in their windows to thank the NHS. But none of this recognition has yet translated into pay rises, extra holidays or extended sick pay. Instead, as people lined up to clap those who assumed the extra burden of emotional labour during this pandemic, healing us back to health and soothing our fears, many seemed to think the greatest reward for this kind of work was emotion itself.
Emotions are one of the most important sources of profit in the contemporary economy. Companies have long been profiting from our feelings – Facebook’s like button is perhaps the most obvious example. Our millions of likes are micro-units of labour. Click by click, they produce data that is worth billions. “Affect”, or our subjective emotional experiences, as the media scholar Marcus Gilroy-Ware recently pointed out, is a source of surplus value.
But this tendency goes back much further than the internet. Workers in retail, service, teaching and healthcare industries have long been expected to provide good feelings as part of their labour. And precisely because it is difficult to assign a monetary value to this emotional aspect of their jobs, that work has long been undervalued.
Blue-collar jobs such as manufacturing, mining, construction and even truck-driving can be done in a variety of moods. The assembly line doesn’t care if you’re crying or laughing; car worker Chuckie Denison at General Motors’s plant in Lordstown, Ohio, told me in 2019 that it often seemed like management resented workers having any feelings at all. Happiness in particular seemed to annoy the boss. What mattered was whether you could meet the line speed – 100 vehicles an hour at one point at Lordstown, which meant workers repeating the same task every 40 seconds. How they felt about it didn’t matter, unless they got angry enough to strike.
But as those jobs have disappeared in the UK and the US (Lordstown closed in 2019), the jobs that have expanded in their stead require what the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild famously called “emotional labour”. If you do a job that is customer-, client-, patient- or student-facing, you’ll likely know what it is to perform emotional labour. It’s the feeling of swallowing the lump in your throat before stepping into the classroom, of choking back rage at the customer who’s just insulted you, of pasting on a smile at the next client in line, or of being admonished to sound happy on the phone at a call centre.
Hochschild stressed that emotional labour was a process of producing feeling in others. We don’t just smile at work for the heck of it; we smile because we hope (or our boss does, at any rate) that the smile will create feelings of warmth in another person that they will associate with the restaurant, the shop, the pub. If a business makes us feel good, we go back. That reputation is produced, in part, by the employees’ skilful production of feelings.
In more complicated interactions, such as teaching or care work, the emotional labour can be more prolonged and nuanced. One may have to coax an answer out of a shy child, soothe a patient who’s just received bad news or ignore a racist slur from a client. It’s no surprise that many jobs requiring emotional labour – what economists and other researchers call “interactive service work” – are done by women. The skills that workers in these jobs use to evoke feelings are not considered skills at all, but rather assumed to be natural attributes of female staff.
And if those workers are just doing what comes naturally then that part of the work doesn’t have to be paid for. The historian Bethany Moreton has argued that companies such as Walmart capitalised on the service ethic of the women they hired – women who, in the early days of retail’s expansion, were chosen by the company precisely because they weren’t presumed to need a family-sustaining wage. Those women weren’t being paid for the full value they brought, and all that goodwill they produced has made a few people exceedingly rich – the Walton family is worth an estimated $215bn.
Instead of higher wages, affective workers are often paid in affect itself, the company-level version of clapping for the NHS. The worst example I’ve seen of this might be the story of a 47-year-old doing an unpaid internship in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, who told reporters she was “paid in hugs”, but there are countless others. This April, the British government rolled out “badges of honour” for NHS and care home workers. The badges, of course, said CARE. Many workers, meanwhile, were more concerned with inadequate personal protective equipment.
Being paid in feelings can all too easily spur a backlash. Gratitude can curdle into anger. All that applause for NHS workers can quickly transform into another grievance. “We clapped for you! How dare you complain? Or ask for a pay raise?”
Even if that backlash never comes, the pandemic has stripped many of the affective rewards away from work. The office where you once enjoyed chatting with co-workers has been reduced to a Slack channel; the diner at the restaurant where you serve food is now a vector of disease. As one cosmetics worker told me last spring, the pandemic turned a pretty good retail job doing makeup for customers into one that risked their health and safety. Some workers got extra pay in the early days of the pandemic to compensate for the added risk, though in many cases that pay has ended. The risks, of course, have not.
The pandemic led many of us to think in a new way about what was “essential” or “key” work, and about the risks those essential workers took to keep us fed, cared for, taught and entertained. As we deal with the privations and difficulties of pandemic life, it’s important not to forget the undervalued emotional labour that is required in those key jobs. The pandemic is a reminder that our lives are in the hands of so many people whose work has for so long been underpaid.