The managed heart goes last: Atwood and “Emotional Labour”

I have long found the managerial concept of “emotional labour” troubling. When studying it, as part of a healthcare leadership and management course within the NHS, my thoughts were filled with the idea that as a concept it demands value on something which is pretty nebulous and therefore always already subject to the power dynamics at play in the employment market. Does it open the door to thinking that an employee just “put up with” whatever is thrown at them, because emotional labour is part of the unwritten expectations of the role? I was also wary of the (more recent) texts lovingly compiled to bolster and justify the emotional labour required for “management” roles and found the nods towards careworkers and flight attendants a little hollow.

More importantly – and as the covid-19 pandemic has shone light onto – roles built around emotional labour do not directly translate into capital. The frontline nurse, the care home worker, the firefighter, etc – when emotional burden suddenly increased through the changing backdrop of the pandemic crisis, extra payment came – at best – in the form of emotions reflected back – in the form of gratitude (the “Thursday clap”, the NHS pin badge).

Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last explores the notion of wage employment in general as an exchange – and in the economic crash of the future world painted in the novel, it becomes an exchange made by the desperate (Charmaine and Stan) and the reward is survival. But more than that, Charmaine’s role as administrator of Positron’s lethal injection exploits her vacant lack of depth – the absence of emotional labour utilised to fulfil the task – as the talent worth utilising. Charmaine, the bimbo, is perfect for the role that no-body else will touch. She is able to therefore present herself via her narrative voice as important, and skilled, and uniquely soothing to those she injects. When she faces her biggest challenge – killing off her partner Stan – of course she is able to do so. Is, therefore, the worker without an inner life, the employee par excellence?

This is an idea worth projecting back onto our conception of emotional labour. By emotional labour – do we mean the nurse who stoically continues on shift in spite of one exhausting heartbreak after another – or the nurse who continues detached and un-phased? Positron values the worker who continues un-phased because they can do more.

If we prefer either one, we place a value on the human heart, on the texture of experience. If we value emotional toil: our inner self fuses concretely to capitalism – or rather, more so. If we devalue emotional toil: we clear an already clearing path to full automation.

But why, as either a “consumer” or an “employer”, would we fall down on either side? This would be the equivalent of judging a decorator on how many steps they had to climb a ladder to complete a job – it is not relevant to the output. There are of course professions which place value on the impression of emotional authenticity and implicitly the labour required – actors, waiting staff, sex workers, etc. This is a theme similarly explored in THGL through the darkly humorous juxtaposition of vacuous but convincing sex robots (as long as they fall in love with the correct object) against Stan’s membership to a clan of clumsy and out of shape Elvis impersonators – having to negotiate themselves into a corner of the market where they can get away with their shoddy performances. In this novel, the robot easily outshines the human when it comes to authenticity at work.

Does this mean that I am arguing against frontline staff wage increases post covid-19? Definitely not – wage equality is long overdue in professions integral to our infrastructure and nothing short of a paradigm shift is required to create justified equilibrium.

Does this mean that I am dismissing emotional labour as a commodity altogether and worth factoring into wages? Not exactly either. I definitely have not finished my thinking on this topic. But, I do think we need to more carefully understand what we mean by emotional labour in relation to other types of labour, and how exactly we want to use it.

Further reading:

  • Atwood, M. The Heart Goes Last: A Novel (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).
  • Hochschild, A.R. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).
  • Hochschild, A.R. ‘Invited commentary: Can emotional labour be fun?’, Int. J. Work Organisation and Emotion, (2009) Vol. 3, No. 2, pp.112–119.

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