There was a great post over at Hi, Miss Julie! last week about emotional labor and librarianship, which I thought was beautifully written and resonant and important, and I was quite taken aback by some of the comments (though not really surprised, as such) to some extent on the original post but particularly on Facebook, and it’s been bugging me ever since, and I think it’s going to keep bugging me until I say my piece about what emotional labor is and isn’t and why this is a conversation we need to have in the profession (and in the world).
Emotional labor is not stress. “It’s a stressful job, we’re all stressed, get over it” is not an appropriate response to an attempt to open a discussion about distribution of and compensation for emotional labor.
It’s not navigating institutional oppression and microaggressions, but there is a huge amount of emotional labor involved in doing those things. “We all do emotional labor!” misses the point. Yes. Yes, we do, but some do more than others, and some of the work that is demanded of us really has very little to do with our, you know, jobs, and that’s a problem (which I will come back to in a little bit).
It is not, in and of itself, the power dynamic (athough the power dynamic absolutely plays into who does what emotional labor). People do emotional labor on behalf of the people over whom they have power, and that can be hard and exhausting, and vulnerable people can be super demanding. Yes. But that is also not the point.*
What it is – look, it’s exactly what it sounds like. It is the work of processing and integrating and dealing with and moving through emotional stuff that is an inherent part of being human. We are sentient creatures; we feel and we are aware of what we feel and we are aware that our feelings shape our experience and we navigate that metaawareness all the time.
Doing emotional labor for other people is also an inherent part of being human. We are social creatures. We exist in a communal, cultural, interacting, often conflicting landscape of norms, expectations, needs, desires, perceptions, reactions, judgements, aspirations, and fears all the time, and we help each other. That’s what society is; the word in its original form connotes commonality and partnership grounded in work, and originates in the Renaissance.
And we understand implicitly that at times it is absolutely appropriate for one person in a dynamic to do a disproportionate amount of the emotional labor within the context of the dynamic. Preferably, the person doing the most work is also the one holding the most power. As parents, we help our children learn to navigate and interpret their emotions, express them appropriately, and interpret those of others. And it’s fucking exhausting (can I hear an amen?) but it is so, so rewarding.
As I’ve said before, information-seeking is inherently scary and hard, and we in the information profession cannot help people navigate their information needs without also engaging with the emotional baggage that comes with those needs. Mediating information needs is absolutely as legitimately hard and demanding as mediating other (physical, psychological, spiritual, social, institutional) needs. We are in a helping profession, and the helping professions are a little weird where power dynamics are concerned. We are the experts and that puts us in a position of power, but we’re expert enough to know that the person we’re working with is the expert of their own experience and we are only and always assisting. As professionals, we are permanently and definitionally on an outer level of the Silk ring with regard to a particular interaction; we are always going to be doing the heavy lifting, we are always engaged in relieving the patron of some of their burden. That’s what helping is. That’s the job.
But we’re also carrying the burden of every other interaction and the cumulative, unrelenting day-to-day stress of caregiving and secondary trauma, which is its own thing that we are simultaneously dealing with, and that is also part of the job, and because we are human we are also dealing with whatever else may be going on in our lives at the same time, which may relate directly to the substance of the patron interaction (and surprisingly often does, because patrons have uncanny radar for the person who is both knowledgable about and sympathetic to their situation).
As leaders in the profession, librarians in particular are expected to have been educated into the skillsets and self-awareness to manage this stuff and help staff manage it, and that that is why we’re paid the big bucks (I’ll come back to this in a little bit, I promise), and this is what we signed up for.
So where’s the problem? The Problem is in two parts.
Problem the first: Emotional labor becomes problematic when the expectation emerges that a person on the weaker end of a power dynamic will do a disproportionate amount of the emotional labor on behalf of a person who has power over them, without compensation, without reciprocation, and without relief, and frequently without any acknowledgement whatsoever.
(Or, when acknowledged, with some bullshit about how that person is being “paid in satisfaction.” It IS satisfying. It IS rewarding. It literally is part of what makes us human. But just like we need rest and aid in other work, we need rest and aid in this work too. There’s a word for when one person does all the work all the time and someone else reaps all the benefits from it, isn’t there?)
When a wife carries the burden of “keeping her husband happy” in order to have access to financial, physical, and social freedom – not only his perceptions of what it means to keep him happy, but society’s, too.
When a person in a service or helping profession (especially, but not only, in the lower ranks of their field**) is held to a standard of “customer service” that amounts to absorbing a client’s or customer’s abuse, bigotry, intrusiveness, or excessive demands, without response or recourse, as a condition of employment or custom.
When any employee, in any profession, is held hostage to their boss’s inability to manage their own emotional shit on the job or or their inability to compartmentalize personal values from professional ones.
That’s inequitable emotional labor, and a lot of it can (and should!) be fixed at the institutional and work-unit level.
Problem the second: intersectionality, in a nutshell. That’s a professional and cultural problem, and it’s thornier, but not completely intractable.
Think about every “got an education, got out of extreme poverty, did well for themselves” story you’ve ever heard – in pop culture, in common knowledge, in friends-of-friends chatter. Think about the gender of the people involved.
There are outliers, there always are, but overwhelmingly, the men are 1.) lawyers 2.) scientists, including doctors, and particularly doctors in research rather than practice fields 3.) entrepreneurs, and particularly product developers rather than front-lines salespeople or business managers. The women are overwhelmingly 1.) teachers 2.) librarians 3.) social workers.***
All of the professions that are emotional-labor-intensive and are overwhelmingly female and require a high level of education and time investment and are public service and have a low compensation-to-educational cost burden are also class-aspirational.
All of the feminine professions that are emotional-labor-intensive and have a low compensation-to-cost-burden are also class-aspirational.
Little girls in poverty are told, from the day we can read or watch television or listen to the grownups talk and understand what they’re saying, that there are two ways out of poverty: to marry well, which requires a whole constellation of “making men happy” skills (and a stupid amount of luck)*** or work our asses off for many, many years to make our way into a profession that will be compensated but never particularly well, and will always, always involve feeding our clients from our own hearts’ blood. The only paths to economic freedom for poor girls in our society involve being the bearer of a disproportionate amount of emotional labor, forever.
Do I feel manipulated into being where I am? A little. Seriously, if I knew when I was fifteen what I know now about class and gender, I would be a lawyer today. I know I would have loved law school; I’m pretty sure I would have loved the work. I didn’t know. How was I supposed to? I only knew what I had an opportunity to learn, and my opportunities were very limited and very skewed.
Do I regret it? No. I love what I do. I love what I do. But you know what? I’d have more energy to love what I do and do it well if I were paid, vacationed, and provided with educational funding assistance appropriate to the amount of soul-pounding, exhausting, always-on work that I do.
Where I am now is worlds better than the last library I was in. In a fairly entry-level position within the organization, I’m making 90% of the national median wage for my (paraprofessional) job description. (In my last position I made 58% of the median wage within the profession – not much over minimum wage – for MLS-appropriate work.) I have vacation and other benefits. I have advancement opportunities. We do have recourse for overt patron bad behavior – we have a well-articulated system for calling for and getting help, including professional security. In my library in particular – I can’t speak for the rest of the organization, but the overall institutional culture supports this – there’s a team-based culture of support for staff in crisis. I’ve walked off the floor during a panic attack triggered by a patron interaction, confident that both my short-term reputation and long-term job were secure. I’ve covered for coworkers doing the same. We take care of each other.
I’m tremendously grateful for all of this.
But I’m exhausted all the time and I don’t see a way of ever being not exhausted, I just don’t see how I can get ahead of the curve, and so many of my colleagues at lots of different types of libraries talk about feeling the same all the time, and I don’t know how to ask for help or what that help would look like. I think the profession could be doing better, but I’m not sure how. And that, in and of itself, tells me that this is something we are not talking enough about.
For sure, we could be compensating better, in both take-home pay and time off. We could be making mental health support a professional priority. We could be doing a better job of equipping people for this work, making that more of a priority in library school, as the medical professions do, and providing more professional development for paras around self-care and colleague support.
So here’s a question: what would it look like if we compensated emotional-labor-intensive professions commensurate to that labor, in various ways? If we created a culture around the idea that professional helping expertise is a thing that actually takes time and effort to produce****, that we value it and want it and are willing to pay for it? If we campaigned hard, with compelling and rational arguments, for the budgets to pay out more in salary and benefits to public servants in helping professions, and had open public conversations about what that involves and why it’s needed and who benefits (seriously, everybody benefits)?
I honestly think that the whole system would become more efficient as people reacclimate to the idea of doing their own mental and emotional labor that they are currently accustomed to doling out to people in whose job concept exists the word servant.
I think I’d spend less time listening to people complaining about how inconvenient it is to remember their library card, and doing the roundabout thing to access their account, and more time doing readers’ advisory and bringing people joy.
I think I’d spend less time troubleshooting password issues and more time troubleshooting really difficult, complex user issues.
I think I’d spend less time answering questions that people already know the answers to because they want someone to respond to them, and more time helping people find their way just a little farther than they’ve ever stretched themselves before, which is really what I got into the field and got this fancy education to do.
Am I saying that if we compensated public service professionals better, people might become more personally responsible? That government employees might spend less time on things people really can do for themselves, and become more efficient and mission-focused? And more compassionate? And more effective? Am I saying that government, like any other economic engine, is a little more valued and more conscientiously utilized when it costs a little more?
Yes. Yes, I am. It’s more complicated than that – it always is – but the undervaluing of women’s emotional labor in our society is one piece of the logjam that the library profession, at least, can acknowledge our complicitness in, work at improving within our own house, and maybe, in the process, shift other pieces that other people are working at, to move toward a society that works better by valuing individuals more.
*Look, John was a library administrator. And dude in an overwhelmingly female profession, with the leverage that comes with that. And a trained professional manager of personnel with lots of skills and knowledge, as a career military NCO. He had quite a lot of power and privilege in the particular situation he was in, relative to most of the people he interacted with. And I saw the toll that the work took on him every day. And I see what my (absolutely wonderful and endlessly patient) boss goes through. So I have a lot of sympathy for library administrators! I really do! But I also think that administrators demanding sympathy for the (relatively well-compensated) burden they’re under from people in less powerful positions, especially when those people are also marginalized in other ways, really, really violates the Silk ring rule. Administrators, consider: if you’re in power over vulnerable people, then working to make their circumstances less vulnerable will ultimately do a lot more to make your job easier than complaining that they don’t understand the intricacies and stresses of your job. No, they don’t. They’re not paid to. You are.
**Nobody should ever have to take shit from customers. It’s just awful that anybody ever does. But calmly and professionally intervening and mediating with problem customers on behalf of employees with less leverage and authority is, explicitly, a category of emotional labor that managers are tasked with and compensated for. Bullies know this and intentionally target low-status workers when managers aren’t watching, especially in organizations with a “shut up and smile, the customer is always right” culture. I saw this in the restaurant industry and I’ve seen it in libraries, and it’s always terrible, and good organizations work to minimize and mitigate it.
***There are enormous race and regional origin factors associated with this too, but I can’t speak with as much authority to those as I can to class and gender, and also there are so many tangents to this post it’s becoming unwieldy. There’s some very good and important research being done on race/class/gender intersectionality in academia gatekeeping, including practical access to graduate-level education in education, library science, and social work fields. I strongly encourage you, if you’re interested, to go seek it out.
****Or do very, very well at one of a limited number of highly sexualized professions (modeling, performing arts) with outrageously rare and very competitive opportunities (and also ridiculous amounts of luck involved), which, again, is basically contingent on making men happy – and more often than not the women who do succeed in those fields take shit for it anyway.
*****My organization actually does really well at this, better I think than any other library I’ve ever seen. We don’t get “haha, must be nice to sit around and read books all day;” we get “you girls run your asses off. You’re so helpful. Thank you so much.” It’s because we’re incredibly transparent about what’s involved in what we do; we work really hard at that transparency. Learning how to do that, and maintaining it, is also work!