R U OK? The impact of emotional labour on teachers

When I think of the best teachers I have ever had – they are almost unanimously those who seemed genuinely passionate about the subject, and about being in the classroom itself. The best teachers I have ever had were those who seemed truly enthusiastic about the opportunity to help others understand something about the world. These are the teachers that I have always aspired to be like. Even on days when I’m feeling a bit off, I’ve always worked to play that role because I know it creates a better learning environment for my students. But what happens when you feel off for not just one day, but for weeks or months in a time of crisis?

Emotional labour and why it matters for teachers

When emotions are underplayed, overplayed, neutralized or changed according to specific emotional rules and in order to advance educational goals, teachers perform emotional labour. Emotional labour is that which “requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others” (Hochschild, 2012, p 7).

Teachers frequently “expend effort and energy in expressing emotions, controlling their emotions and those of others, and caring for their students and other members of the school community” (Bellocchi, 2019, p 12). Indeed, research has found that the emotional bonds formed from positive relationships with students are associated with a greater sense of teacher efficacy and lower levels of stress, as well as greater student engagement and teacher well-being (Hoy, 2013). Woods and Jeffrey (1996) found in a study of ‘exceptional’ teachers that their cognitive scaffolding of concepts and teaching strategies were “held together with emotional bonds” (p. 71).

Emotional labour can in some instances be enjoyable as it can stimulate genuine emotion on the part of the actor and the audience. However, emotional labour has also been associated with negative psychosocial effects such as burnout, stress and self-alienation, depression, cynicism, role alienation, emotional numbness, job tension, and the stripping away of individual experience, relational context, and intimacy (Tracy, 2005).

The impact and likelihood of being subject to these negative psychological effects appears to be related to the degree of dissonance between ones felt emotions and the emotions they believe they are expected to perform.

Saul Karnovsky is a Lecturer and Bachelor of Education (Secondary) Course Coordinator at Curtin University. Saul wrote an article in The Conversation in March of 2021 detailing his research into emotional labour undertaken by teachers. In September of this year, I reached out to Saul to ask him about emotional labour in the context of education in times of crisis.

Q&A with Saul Karnovsky

Saul, why do you think that emotional labour is so important for teachers to be talking about in 2021?

SK: I believe the concept of emotional labour is as relevant now as it was when Hochschild first articulated it in 1983. Teachers at all career stages and contexts, including higher education, come to exert a great amount of effort to manage undesired emotions or maintain their professional coolness, often in the face of increasingly demanding external pressures of accountability and performativity. At the same time, teachers are expected to actively develop both empathy and care in their work, even when they confront a seemingly worsening crises in community mental health, which has only been exacerbated due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Researchers have framed emotional labour in teachers’ lives as the twin challenges of feel but don’t show and show when you don’t feel. In the former, teachers are expected to avoid showing some emotions, like frustration in social circumstances that make this extremely challenging. In the latter, teachers are expected to model emotional behaviour like enthusiasm and interest, even when they may be bored by standardised curriculum content. The difficulty of enacting these display rules can range from easy to exhausting, depending on a range of factors. This includes an individual’s personal resources, such as an ability to manage stress, as well as the forces shaping work situations, such as having time to debrief after difficult emotional situations.

Why I believe that we need to be talking more about this emotional work in 2021 is because many teachers feel that unwanted emotional expression causes professional others to think differently of them, which is especially true of outward signs of vulnerability. Such emotional behaviour would mean that ‘something was wrong’ so teachers work to guard their vulnerable emotions. Teachers can spend a great deal of energy thinking and acting in ways that manage emotional visibility to others, which can be an exhausting and at times debilitating aspect of our work.

Your research has focused on early-career educators, what are some of the unique challenges they face?

SK: In my research I found that even at an early-career stage teachers exerted substantial effort to “mask” their emotions. They felt the need to put on a ‘brave face’ or a ‘professional façade’ in front of those who are monitoring or assessing them. Early-career teachers understand that there is a demand required of them to cultivate the skill of reacting emotionally in particular ways, namely that of maintaining neutrality in the face of difficult or undesired emotions.

In seeking to adopt the emotional rule of maintaining emotional neutrality in front of others, or at the very least avoidance of emotional extremes, early-career teachers make conscious efforts to shape emotional expression according to what is ‘appropriate’. In this way, at an early stage of their career teachers learn that emotional labour is an unavoidable by-product of their work, an aspect they simply need to ‘cope with’ in order to maintain their employment.

When it comes to our students, what do you think they are expecting at the moment?

SK: There appears to be a cultural shift occurring when it comes to a community recognition of mental health. I feel that today’s students are more open, more understanding and have a greater appreciation of others who speak honestly about the stigma of mental health. I would argue that the teaching profession needs to address what has become a systemic failure in both how we train new teachers and support in-service practitioners. This is in relation to providing time, space, and resources for educators to have safe conversations where they can share their collective emotional labour. Teachers can work together in this space to not feel they need to cope individually and rather find collective strategies in managing the emotional demands of their work.

What are some signs of emotional labour or burnout that we can identify in ourselves or others?

SK: A better way to think of this is asking both yourself and others – does my work make me feel ‘demoralized’? Demoralisation occurs when we lose our confidence or hope and feel disheartened in a professional context. There are numerous ways this occurs, but currently I feel that teachers are becoming demoralised by a range of external policy reforms and impositions on their teaching that counterpose an ethic of human connection and a love of learning. I believe that teachers must pivot to a position of support and care for one another to develop meaningful collegial relations so we can share emotional burdens together. Professional wellbeing needs to move from a purely individual imposition to a collective practice.

Strategies to manage emotional labour

Managing emotional labour is challenging due to the complexity of antecedents and moderating variables. However, several strategies can be undertaken to help teachers mitigate the negative consequences of emotional labour (Weaver, Allen, & Byrney, 2019; Yin, Huang, & Chen, 2019; Yin, Huang, & Lee, 2017)

  1. Being mindful of the degree of emotional labour that we are undertaking and express naturally felt emotion more frequently. This can reduce the degree of dissonance between felt and performed emotion, which reduces emotional labour and can help to enhance teacher’s perceptions of their work.
  2. Taking care of yourself outside of work hours and engaging in activities where you don’t feel the need to engage in emotional labour can similarly facilitate expression of naturally felt emotion.
  3. Connecting with colleagues and speaking openly about the emotional labour you are experiencing. Facilitating an atmosphere of trust and communicating about emotional labour has been found to help teachers express their naturally felt emotion while also establishing a sense of community support and wellbeing. Recent research has found that even brief sessions can help facilitate this.
  4. Finally, speaking to your manager about the emotional labour you are experiencing can serve to (a) help your manager understand where you may need support, (b) help you to feel more comfortable expressing naturally felt emotion at work, and (c) open a conversation about expectations regarding levels of emotional labour.

Final thoughts

While its easy to put this into a blog – putting it into practice is a lot harder. Earlier this year I found myself experiencing the negative impacts of emotional labour and found myself frustrated that I wasn’t living up to my own standard, letting my students down, and letting the school down. However, the best decision I made was speaking to my manager about this which gave us both the opportunity to manage expectations, as well as create strategies about workload and work allocation moving forward. More broadly, I found that openly speaking to my colleagues, friends and family about what I was experiencing also helped a great deal.

  • Recently it was R U OK? Day. It’s an important time to take stock, and speak to one another about what we are all experiencing.
  • Most universities offer staff and their immediate families access to professional, confidential counselling, coaching and support. For example at The University of Sydney, Benestar is the Employee Assistance Program provider. This is a free service, with each person eligible for four hours of counselling, coaching and support per calendar year.

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