"Can I help?" Emotional labour and precarity

With increasing precarity post-crash, are women's jobs subject to more psychological labour than ever before?

Dawn Foster
16 June 2015

Protestors against zero hours contracts gather outside a Hastings shop

A little over a decade ago, I received a phone call offering me a part-time job in a nearby high street shop. Having sent in the application on a whim, with little expectation of success, it was a pleasant shock. My previous work experience amounted to Saturday jobs burning my hands on unwieldy coffee machines, and trying not to drop fried breakfasts while winding my way through scores of tables. 

So the first day, with five other women being inducted, was a moment of tentative excitement. There was a uniform, a generous staff discount, and a large staff room upstairs. We were told, matter-of-factly, that we were all on “zero hours contracts” though later we all confessed outside that we had no idea what that meant in practice. 

We found out shortly. Each week, a rota was drawn up. Initially the shifts seemed to be regular, and shared relatively equally. As the weeks wore on, the dynamic changed. I was polite and smart, and turned out to have a knack for selling shoes: one of the more involved shop floor jobs, involving a certain amount of cajoling, and measuring of customers’ moods. But I was also able to respond positively to my manager’s attempts to strike up conversation: to read her manner and second guess what the subtext of her queries were; to guess when she was in a bad mood and offer support; to sense when she was stressed and offer help. 

Other colleagues worked just as hard, but focussed less on this emotional labour. They were paid to do a certain task, so they’d do it well. Everything else was outside their remit. Another colleague enjoyed the job, but wasn’t able to be as flexible with her hours, due to childcare issues. Slowly, these colleagues noticed their names cropping up less and less often on the rotas, until they realised the reality of zero hours contracts. Other staff members were hired, despite the fact three or four colleagues were sat at home, wondering whether to take a chance on finding a new job.  

Ten years ago, zero hours contracts weren’t as common as they are now in Britain. Most part-time jobs offered you a minimum guarantee of hours, with the option of more overtime. The precarity of a zero hours contract is well documented - when your employer can continue your employment with no guarantee of work, there’s obviously no guarantee you can pay your rent. Even if your employer has not offered you work for weeks, you still can’t quit and claim Jobseekers’ Allowance in the UK, as the Department for Work and Pensions deem you to have made yourself deliberately unemployed.  

The recession hastened this sea change in employment rights. Seemingly overnight, workers in countries hit by the crash were told to be thankful they had a job at all. Especially for the lowest paid workers, the message was clear that they should accept scraps from the table rather than demand their fair share of the bread. For my boss, and many others, this meant their role shifted from simply managing a small team in a straightforward manner, to an intense power play. To have a minimum wage shift bestowed upon you, rearranging shirts by size order and tidying the shop floor wasn’t enough. You had to perform for your manager, and engage in affective labour to curry favour and win rewards.  

The psychological dynamics of workplaces run on zero hours contracts are starkly different to salaried offices. Every colleague is competition, yet you’re constantly on edge, aware that the tiniest slip of the tongue, or careless mistake could mean a fall from grace and loss of income. In such circumstances, its impossible to organise collectively. No one employed so precariously dare step out of line first, knowing the inevitable consequences. 

Instead, the workplace becomes more atomised, suspicion of colleagues higher, job satisfaction lower. Meanwhile the UK government wonder why productivity is so low: post-crash productivity has remained at roughly 16% below pre-crash levels. Ensuring your employees are kept in a state of precarity deskills your workforce. Productivity predictably slumps.

But the rise of precarity and attendant affective labour aren’t confined to the lowest paid sections of the workforce. Creative industries, and especially PR, expect extensive periods of free work, for which the unpaid are expected to be grateful, before even a sniff at a permanent contract. Much of the work involved in PR and publicity, “pink collar” jobs, as Jennifer Pan wrote in Jacobin, revolve around the building of relationships. Relationships that are unlikely to be sincere, but require plenty of emotional labour regardless: the input is the same, and the attendant weariness and sting of rejection, and rebuffs from journalists, producers and clients has a high mental toll.

This work, like low paid retail work in which zero hours contracts are common, is still predominantly carried out by women. As a result, it is undervalued, underpaid and precarious. The psychological toll of endlessly performing emotional labour and projecting certain personas to yield results is underestimated and seen to be as valueless as it is unquantifiable. Anyone raising grievances with regard to their treatment is reminded that pink collar jobs are competitive and desirable, in a cut-throat jobs market. The message is clear: in female dominated industries and roles, you are always replaceable, and therefore of little value. 

In Joanna Biggs’ recent book All Day Long: A portrait of Britain at work, she profiles two baristas in a London branch of sandwich shop Pret a Manger. Pret a Manger prides itself on enforcing “The Pret Behaviours” listed in a book handed out to all staff, which explains all staff must smile, try to chat to customers while their coffee is being prepared and act with the utmost enthusiasm at all times. Rather than receiving tips, bonuses are accrued based on the findings of Pret’s mystery shoppers: with the bonus, an average worker’s basic salary rises from £200 to £245.

Eighty per cent of mystery shoppers are happy, and the bonus is paid out. But it’s indicative of a skewing of workplace dynamics and feelings about employees. Previously, if workers were unhappy in a workplace, the likelihood of strikes, or workplace negotiations could improve conditions. Logic dictates that if workers are unhappy, making their working conditions and rewards more attractive will increase work satisfaction and therefore production. But instead, corporations mandate happiness, making the performance a core skill of the job. Your happiness is no longer seen as an integral part of you, and contingent on outside forces, but instead a performative skill. Whether you’re genuinely happy or not is irrelevant: but dare show a flash of genuine emotion at work, and know that your income is at risk.

Post-crash, the psychological power play between managers and the managed is more fraught than ever, with far more at stake. But employees, especially women, are no longer allowed to separate their working life from their personal life. Much of work now relies on emotional performance and projecting the impression that your working self is your whole self - the long term implications for women are yet to be seen.

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