What is emotional labour – and how do we get it wrong?

The Managed Heart

Almost 40 years since its original publication in 1983, it is fitting to revisit The Managed Heart, which arguably ranks as one of the most important contemporary sociological texts.

The Managed Heart, which established Hochschild as a public sociologist, is perhaps her most enduring contribution. It examines the cost of employment conditions in contemporary capitalist, post-industrial societies characterised by the expansion of the service sector.

As Hochschild explains in the opening of the book, her quest was to consider — following Marx’s interest in the conditions of employment — the human cost of becoming an instrument of labour.

She turned to the airline industry and specifically the experience of flight attendants in managing their emotions at work. She also drew on bill collectors as another illustrative case study.

The costs of emotional labour

Hochschild found that as commercial interests lay claim to a worker’s emotional life, that worker becomes vulnerable to alienation from aspects of themselves and their work.

The flight attendants interviewed by Hochschild often spoke of their smiles as being on them but not of them and found it difficult to come down after work from their artificial elation, born of needing to continually enhance the customer’s status through acting as if the cabin is the customer’s home.

Workers also manage this demand by separating out themselves from the job. Workers who clearly segregate themselves from their jobs are less likely to suffer burnout, but risk estrangement from themselves. They can become cynical about the requirement to act and perform.

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While taxing the worker, this form of labour enables a version of public life where many people – we as customers – experience trusting and pleasant transactions with total strangers, on a daily basis.

But the costs of performing emotional labour show how important it is to use the concept correctly. By overextending the concept, we risk devaluing it – or worse, rendering the type of labour it describes less visible.

And this undercuts a key contribution provided by Hochschild’s book: making visible the struggles that this labour imposes on the worker. Struggles that were, up until then, largely invisible or seldom recognised.


This article was written by Michael James Walsh, Associate Professor in Social Sciences, University of Canberra and Stephanie Alice Baker, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, City, University of London. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.