Field Notes: Cake, communication, and the hidden costs of emotional labor

March 9, 2020
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sad man at desk with party hat on lighting candle on cupcake

"Field Notes" is a regular Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at connect@aacrao.org.

by Erin Mason, Associate Registrar, University of Connecticut

Recently, I surprised a coworker* with birthday baked goods. The colleague thanked me and the treat was devoured within the hour. But at the end of the day, the colleague told me that it wasn’t what they wanted and hopefully next time, I’d make a different treat. 

How would you have felt about this? How might you have reacted? I was surprised and hurt, uncertain about the best way to handle what felt like a slight. 

This exchange, and my decision about how to handle it, is an example of emotional labor.

Unseen but important work

“Emotional labor” was coined by a researcher studying how service providers express and manage emotions to ensure they are behaving in accordance with workplace expectations. (Since then, others have, for better or worse, broadened the concept.) 

Emotional regulation in the workplace is difficult, ever-present, but often invisible work. It can impact your professional satisfaction and success, even leading to fatigue and burnout. Due to cultural norms, implicit biases, and traditional roles, it can also disproportionately affect women and people of color

Although taxing, engaging in emotional labor has benefits: it can ensure positive service outcomes (think: the Disney experience), support positive working relationships, and possibly enhance one’s professional reputation. 

Coping with difficult emotions

Social scientists suggest a few common responses to emotional challenges at work. So, given the baking example above, my options might be:

1. Surface-level acting. For example, I could have “faked it,” laughing off my hurt feelings instead of acknowledging them. 

2. Deep acting. I could have made an effort to change my feelings to suit the office’s expectations, perhaps acknowledging that I should have asked what the colleague would have preferred.

3. Authentic action. In this case, authenticity might entail having a conversation about how the comment made me feel. Being vulnerable in the workplace, of course, comes with its own risks. 

Creating safe space for emotional labor

Our workplaces can value this unseen labor by acknowledging it and discussing it—creating space in which we can share emotions within and across power differentials without fear of reprisal. We must also acknowledge and appreciate that some of us--and our students--engage in emotional labor more often, whether it is a result of our function, disposition, or something else.

If we acknowledge the performance of this labor, we must also attempt to empower ourselves and others with the coping skills needed to manage the stress that comes from our unseen labor. I sometimes do this by asking for or offering a “safe space” in which we can discuss concerns in an authentic way.

In my case, I went with an authentic response, stating that the hurtful comment might deter me from future baking endeavors, and a “thank you” would have sufficed. While I think my decision to act authentically was the right one, I was able to do this because of the work we’ve done in our environment to encourage this kind of dialog.*  As it was, perhaps it served as a model to others and a reminder that emotions exist in the workplace, which, despite the anxiety and risk, we can successfully navigate, to everyone’s benefit. 

*Special thank you to the coworker who was kind enough to consent to me sharing this as an example.