'Emotional' Labor is Subject of New Book

Emergency dispatchers, caseworkers, and other public service workers perform "emotional" labor that should be valued in the same manner as mental and physical labor, according to a new book co-written by a University of Illinois at Chicago researcher.

Sharon Mastracci, UIC assistant professor of public administration and co-author of "Emotional Labor: Putting the Service in Public Service" says emotional labor is face-to-face or voice-to-voice contact, often with clients under stress, that is essential to a job. "Public service workers must understand, engage, and channel the emotions of their clients to be effective," Mastracci said. "For instance, if your bus is running behind, the driver can calmly explain the reasons why, which are often beyond the driver's control, or act defensive about riders' complaints and lash out. Both responses affect riders' perceptions of that particular trip, which they might generalize to bus service overall, fairly or not."

Mastracci and co-authors Meredith Newman of Florida International University and Mary Guy of the University of Colorado at Denver gathered workers' stories through interviews, focus groups, and surveys. They found parallels between emotional labor and cognitive work. Among their findings:

  • Workers can express the amount of emotional labor they do and describe the activities involved.
  • Workers report varying levels of ability and effectiveness.
  • Differences in ability and effectiveness vary with the individual, not with the work environment.
  • Emotional labor can contribute to job satisfaction.
  • Emotional labor contributes to "burnout" only when workers must suppress their own emotions and pretend to feel a different emotion.

The researchers conclude that the value of emotional labor should be acknowledged in job descriptions, applicant screening, training, and development and retention strategies.

The book addresses inequities in the pay and status of workers who do emotional labor, trends in occupations requiring emotional labor, and gaps between theory and practice in public service.

For more information, visit www.uic.edu.

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