Understanding affective labour
Woodcock, J. (2019) 'Understanding affective labour: the demand for workers to really care', in D. Frayne (ed) *The Work Cure: Critical Essays on Work and Wellness*, 61-74. Monmouth: PCCS Books.
The role of emotions at work has intensified with the rise of new kinds of service work. The importance of this ‘emotional labour’ was demonstrated by Arlie Hochschild in her book The Managed Heart (2012), where she documented her famous study on the emotional labour of flight attendants. Here she defined emotional labour as ‘the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display’. This form of labour is central to customer service roles, from hospitality to call centres, and is integral to how products and services are marketed, sold and consumed. Emotional labour has also historically been divided along gendered lines, de-valued, and often classified as unskilled, if it is acknowledged at all.
Subsequent to Hochschild’s book, ‘emotional labour’ has been developed into the broader concept of ‘affective labour’. The key difference here is that, if feelings are personal and emotions are social, affects are prepersonal. Affect is a ‘non-conscious experience of intensity; it is a moment of unformed and unstructured potential’ (Shouse, 2005). This broader conceptualisation – which I will return to – serves to help us understand what is at stake in new forms of work, and particularly how capital can tap into this potential. The affective definition therefore ‘refers equally to body and mind’ and the labour involved ‘produces or manipulates affects’ (Hardt & Negri, 2004: 108) – something more complex than only emotions.
The use of affective labour at work is increasing across sectors and becoming an important new area in which capital seeks to extract value. In the workplace itself, this is expressed as a new demand for qualities like positivity, authenticity and spontaneity. The pressures documented by Hochschild can also be clearly seen in today’s call centres (Woodcock, 2017). Affective labour, like all kinds of labour at work, has at its core an indeterminacy. When an employer buys someone’s time, they only purchase a potential. This is a key problem for management: how to extract the most from the labour power they have purchased, complicated by the fact that it is embodied in people whose interests differ from the interests of the organisation. This challenge is further complicated with affective labour, which is even more indeterminate and nuanced. This often leads to ridiculous management strategies such as call-centre ‘buzz sessions’, designed to prepare workers before a shift.
[Buzz sessions are] an opportunity for the company to remind workers of the different rules, stress the importance of quality, and then attempt to encourage some kind of enthusiasm for the upcoming shift. The content of these sessions varied, but most involved playing some sort of game. These range from competitions testing product knowledge (perhaps not the most exciting) to word games – for example, each person in turn shouting out the name of a country, following alphabetical order with no repetition, eliminating those who fail to do so until only the winner remains. Although being made to play children’s games was somewhat demeaning, it did offer the benefit of stretching out the time before we had to be on the call-centre floor. (Woodcock, 2017: 40).
This chapter will explore why these sorts of ‘buzz sessions’ take place, along with how the workplace is changing, both in customer service roles and more broadly. It begins with an example from my own work experience of using affect by text to set up the discussion of what constitutes emotional and affective labour. The chapter then moves on to discuss how affective labour is organised at work, before considering the negative personal effects of this kind of work, particularly in relation to mental health. While the implications for workers are considered, the chapter also discusses the possibilities for resistance and the subversion of affective labour.
Affect by text
In 2009, I worked for a very unusual company in what was – technically – my first research job. The role involved responding to questions submitted by the public via SMS text message. The service was used by people without immediate access to the internet or a smartphone (these were less widespread at the time), or often by people who were simply too inebriated to find the answer for themselves. Although, several years later, this service sounds quite anachronistic, even at the time I was surprised that people would use SMS services to get answers to questions – especially given the steep cost per message.
Over the course of my job, I never met anyone from the company: not during the recruitment process, nor while I worked for them. In an arrangement that has become far more commonplace with the rise of Uber and Deliveroo (Facility & Woodcock, 2017), I was falsely categorised as ‘self-employed’. In this way, the company operated like an online platform. There was a forum for workers to communicate, but this was administrated by managers and mainly provided advice on how to deal with the problem of registering for self-employment, tax and national insurance.
I had only one client, the company, which had developed a piece of software that distributed the incoming text messages to the workers who were logged in. I did not respond from my own phone; instead the system operated like a call centre, distributing incoming and outgoing messages. I could choose to log in whenever I wanted and would be paid a small fee per answer. The organisation of the work was therefore closely mapped to the demand for the service. Although I could log in whenever I chose, I found I could only make money at particular times. The peak times to work were easy to gauge, particularly as the programme provided a numerical indication of the current incoming texts. Visually, the programme itself was fairly basic and lacked any aesthetic appeal. It was much closer to Ceefax than modern websites, with lots of grey space and clashing RGB colours. There were options similar to the call centre, allowing the worker to log in, enter a waiting/idle mode, or log out.
Once I logged in, the flow of questions would begin streaming in. The text of the question would be displayed, a second-by-second timer would start ticking, and I would be given the option to accept the question or skip. Skipped questions would be sent to other active users before re-entering the queue. Skipping a question also counted negatively towards my performance metrics, which were displayed at the side of the screen. They included things like length of time active, questions successfully answered, and so on.
Once a question was accepted, the option to reply became activated. This created something analogous to the ‘assembly line in the head’ that Taylor and Bain (1999: 109) have discussed in the context of call centres. This is the feeling of pressure that takes hold when the automated system sets the pace of the work. The difference between my job and a call centre is that my shift did not have a set length, and nor did it involve the direct intervention of a supervisor. Instead, the logic of reaching targets was effectively internalised. If you wanted to take a break or slow down the pace of work, you could – so long as you were prepared to receive less money. The positive side is that, with no direction from management, the labour process could be performed in different ways. I could ignore the often-arbitrary rules from the call centre, such as scheduled and timed toilet breaks, uniform requirements and so on (Woodcock, 2017). I would sometimes watch TV in the background or listen to my own choice of music while working. These changes make the labour process more bearable, but the online nature of the work also isolates the worker.
After I responded to a question, the online system would send my response to the customer in the form of a text. The response itself was limited to a character length of 160, and therefore involved a counter (similar to the one seen on Twitter). The demand for brevity was therefore a significant part of the labour process – I needed not only to find a suitable answer but also to be able to express that answer in a suitable format. There was a specific rule set for acceptable abbreviations and these had to be learned in advance (or looked up when answering, which increased the time it took to complete responses). The computer system also provided a list of answers that had been provided for similar questions. This search function meant that if someone, say, had asked which takeaways were open at 4am in Northampton, recent answers would appear on my screen. These could have been provided to customers automatically, but the worker was expected to double check for validity (considering things like whether the answer previously provided was recent, whether the takeaways had different opening hours on weekdays, and so on). Clicking the answer copied it over into the reply, where it could then be modified before sending.
This meant that there were two broad categories of questions: those that could be replied to rapidly with a stock answer (perhaps even risking that information being incorrect) and those that required some research. Broadly, there were four kinds of typical questions: first, obvious questions that could be answered very quickly; second, challenging questions that required research beyond using Google; third, questions from people who were high or drunk and did not necessarily make sense, and fourth, stupid questions that did not really have an answer. The worker was expected to go beyond just providing an answer – by, as the company explained, ‘being accurate and by adding value in terms of relevant content, style, humour, personality’. What was unusual about this requirement was that workers were expected to take on the persona of the company, presenting themselves as some sort of omniscient artificial intelligence. Unlike in a call centre, in which workers draw on their own personalities (or at least the performance of a personality), this meant drawing on emotional or affective dimensions, while performing as a non-human. Customers would regularly follow up with questions about the company – was it an artificial intelligence, how was it automated, was it ‘real’ and so on – and these became another option to display ‘humour’ or ‘personality’. Just like in many other forms of work, this affective labour had to be performed according to strict requirements and under significant pressure. The difficulty of doing this was neither recognised nor remunerated by the company.
Emotional and affective labour
Emotions, like communication, have always played a part in collective work. Even when Marx was writing, there were huge numbers of domestic servants (even more than there were industrial workers) – a form of labour that very clearly involves emotional engagement. As Dalla Costa and James have remarked in relation to the role of the housewife: ‘Where women are concerned, their labour appears to be a personal service outside of capital’ (1971: 10). Despite technological innovations and new consumer goods, the housewife ‘is always on duty, for the machine doesn’t exist that makes and minds children’ (p11). The gendering of work (and what is considered to be work) has involved devaluing the work and skills historically associated with women. Care and domestic work are neither remunerated nor, often, considered to be real forms of work.
Yet the emotional labour associated with domestic work has now become part of the capitalist labour process, where it is managed and regulated. My experiences of sending ‘humorous’ text message replies involved this kind of emotional labour, and so too does the way that call-centre workers are routinely expected to bring more to a call encounter than just verbally reproducing the script. They must do it with feeling, reminding us once again of Hochschild’s study of flight attendants, who were told by their trainers and managers to ‘smile like you really mean it’ (2012).
The growth of the service sector has seen increasing numbers of workers subjected to these requirements, in sectors including care work, office work, shopping and hospitality, to name a few. What is important to note is that, across many of these organisations, what is being sold is not a finished commodity but a service. Hochschild argued that the emotional style of offering the service has become part of the service itself. In other words, the worker’s feelings and emotional conduct have become a key part of how money is made and profit extracted. This means that emotions are no longer personal; instead, ‘emotional labour is sold for a wage and therefore has exchange value’ (Hochschild, 2012: 7).
The historical division of emotional labour along gendered lines has rendered it invisible in a number of ways. For example, Adkins and Lury (1999) argue that:
… women do not gain and retain jobs because of the particular occupational resources they possess… but rather they are employed as ‘women’ with an assumed responsiveness. (p 605)
This contrasts, they argue, with men, who are more likely to be hired on the basis of their skills – and often not skills that have a recognised emotional component. In this sense, emotional labour has become a normative expectation of women, and is perceived to be a ‘natural’ component of femininity rather than a distinctive skill.
Pan (2014) illustrates a number of these dynamics in a discussion about public relations (PR) – a profession composed mostly of women. Pan argues that ‘in PR, a certain overlap of professional and personal relationships is not only likely, but ideal’ (2014). The labour process involves the ‘expression of enthusiasm for a product because of pay rather than passion’ (Pan, 2014), which has resulted in workers being criticised for their ‘phoniness’. When journalists launch an attack on bad PR, ‘the unspoken heart of their criticism is the failure on the part of the publicist to adequately conceal that she is performing emotional work for money’ (Pan, 2014). Whereas the artist or cultural producer follows their passions seemingly regardless of money, those who perform passions or emotions for money are often degraded and undervalued in this way.
We find a good example of this policing of affective labour in the case of Pret à Manger, where workers are subjected to a complex set of management tactics to maximise affect while they are selling coffee. This started with the infamous (and now removed from their website) ‘Pret Behaviours’, which listed 17 discouraged behaviours, 18 encouraged behaviours, and 17 behaviours that were considered ‘Pret Perfect!’ If this does not sound dystopian enough, these behaviours would then be policed by mystery shoppers – assessors posing as customers, who would buy their coffees and then write up detailed reports on the performances of the workers. The outcome of this undercover operation would determine whether all the staff at that outlet received a bonus. This functioned to make workers feel responsible for one another’s bonuses, which led to workers being policed by each other, as well as by the mystery shopper (Kinniburgh, 2013).
It seems the demands of affective labour have developed extensively since Hochschild first documented the phenomenon. The ‘outward countenance’ of the worker – to use Hochschild’s term – is now mediated through a complex package of affects. The affective labour process attempts to produce ‘intangible feelings of ease, excitement, or passion’ (Hardt & Negri, 2000: 293) across more and more contexts. This is not only in the context of selling services, but also in a:
... series of activities that are not normally recognized as ‘work’ – in other words, the kinds of activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion. (Lazzarato, 1996: 133)
In the UK, call centre work has become almost universally reviled, both by workers and customers. When employment agencies ask prospective recruits whether they are prepared to go to a call centre, it often comes with the warning that ‘this job isn’t for everyone!’ (Woodcock, 2017: 149). Call centres have become a flagship example of emotional labour managed under particularly oppressive technological control. As Enda Brophy explains, ‘working in a call centre tends to include a well-established mix of low wages, high stress, precarious employment, rigid management, draining emotional labour and pervasive electronic surveillance’ (2010: 471).
In the call centre, a worker is expected to go significantly beyond simply reading out a script. In high-volume sales call centres, like the one I worked in to research my book, Working the Phones (Woodcock, 2017), this brought an additional quality to the labour process that was difficult for managers to measure and regulate. It meant workers had to use their emotions to bring a script alive, and also to manage the customer’s emotions – particularly anger (Deery, Iverson & Walsh, 2002). Call-centre work thus becomes a complex process, the ‘outward countenance’ of Hochschild’s emotional labourer now mediated through the demand to ‘smile down the phone’ (Taylor & Bain, 1999: 103). Since workers in a call centre are never face-to-face with their customers, this performance must be achieved verbally, through the tone and pace of speech and the choice and emphasis of particular words.
The technologies of control in the call centre allow for the collection of precise quantitative data on a whole range of different variables, including the number of sales, length of calls, time between calls, length of breaks and so on. This surveillance technology allows for ‘an acceleration of the rhythm of work, achieved by the elimination of the workday’s “pores” (that is of “dead” production time)’ (Marazzi 2011: 76). However, the affective dimension is indeterminate by nature, and is hard to capture, measure and compare between different workers and calls. It is here that the electronic surveillance becomes less useful to organisations and, rather than monitoring what workers are doing, the chief concern becomes regulating how they are doing it.
It is here that we find a contemporary variation of ‘Taylorism’ (named after Frederick Taylor, the inventor of scientific management and the so-called Taylor System). Taylor pioneered the famous time and motion studies, which were conducted in factories to break down the labour process into discrete tasks that could be precisely timed and measured. Taylorism is the use of measurement and control to micro-manage the labour process in order to extract the greatest efficiency possible (Braverman, 1999). Comparing the Taylorist factory with the ‘electronic Taylorism’ of the call centre, Cederström and Fleming write that the latter demands ‘every fiber of your organism to always be switched on’ (Cederström & Fleming, 2012: 7). Today ‘the enemy of production is what human resource managers like to call presenteeism: being present only in body with every other part of you being far, far away’ (2012: 7). Supervision becomes not only about monitoring whether the worker is doing the correct action, but also about ensuring that they are feeling the right way about it. In this way, emotional labour demands a high degree of authenticity: the display of emotion must feel real.
This requirement introduces new challenges for workers. In the call centre, like many workplaces, aspects of ‘creativity’ and ‘self-expression’ have become intrinsic to labour, resulting in ‘affective, as well as productive demands on workers’ (Fisher, 2009: 40). In circumstances where call centres are located in different countries to their customers, the job also involves an additional demand for ‘authenticity’ with respect to race and geographical location (Mirchandani, 2012). Indian call centre workers, for example, are now increasingly pressured into using names that are more similar to those common in the countries where their clients are calling from. They may also be required to learn contextual information about topics like the local weather and sports results at the start of their shifts, in order to be able to pretend they are in the same country.
The problem for management is how to measure whether workers are meeting these emotional demands. The obsession for electronic surveillance in the call centre allows the minute monitoring of a whole range of quantitative aspects, but these qualitative aspects remain elusive to managers and are a constant source of conflict. In pursuit of work discipline, managerial techniques are introduced to overcome the intransigence of emotions and affect. The ‘buzz session’, for example, aims to motivate workers before they start calling, but there is no real consensus on how to do this.
In their study of Sunray Customer Service (a pseudonym), Cederström and Fleming describe such management initiatives as an attempt ‘to inject life into the dead-zone of work’ (2012: 10). It is at this point that managers implore workers to ‘just be yourself!’, with the obvious but obscured caveat that self-expression can only take a form that harmonises with the organisational goal of increasing sales. Unlike working on an assembly line, work is by this point no longer about turning up and completing set tasks. The worker must be seen to participate in a particular way. The claim that buzz sessions and other extra-curricular activities are ‘fun’ also involves a coercive side. Failing to embody the spirit of fun risks being labelled as a party-pooper, ‘the most serious crime you could commit’ (Cederström & Fleming 2012: 16) – workers are expected not only to commit time and efficiency; they are required to enjoy the process too. The question that remains is what effect these demands have on the workers who are subjected to them on a daily basis.
Mortification of body and mind
The control and disciplining of emotions and affect at work has serious implications for workers’ health. As Marx noted (in the gendered language of the time), alienated labour has a profound effect on the worker: it ‘mortifies his body and ruins his mind’ (1844). I have previously written this about my own experience of working in a call centre:
The affective package that workers are required to perform during the labour process is demanding. The experience was exhausting and emotionally draining. From my own experience of working eight-hour afternoon/evening shifts – unfortunately also complemented with a morning of reading and writing about call centres – the labour process was exhausting. In particular it made social phone calls something to avoid, as I became unable to break out of the routinised pattern of sales calls; in-person conversations became difficult too. Arriving home by about 10pm, my food preparation fell into a pattern of baked beans on toast, followed by slouching on the sofa watching television. (Woodcock, 2017: 53–54)
I was aware of the stress of the work – it was hard to escape. However, the depth of the effects only really became clear to me at the launch of my book. An audience member asked about the effects of working in a call centre for my mental health and I quickly gave the deluded reply that it had not really been an issue. A friend in the crowd – who I had lived with at the time – then spoke up for me. He explained that, actually, I had noticeably suffered during the time, with observable effects on both my mental and physical health. Call centre workers are often left with an echo of the labour process that continues after work: things like a whooshing noise from when the next call connects, which continues when you use the phone for other calls. The emotional toll of the work makes escaping the call centre harder, particularly when trying to relax afterwards. You no longer want to use any phone at all.
One of the reasons that call centre work is so draining is that the requirement to produce emotions on demand results in a kind of ‘emotional dissonance’ (Morris & Feldman, 1997). This is the experience of having to express an emotion that is not actually felt – an internal contradiction that results in increased strain and exhaustion. In her study of flight attendants, Hochschild referred to this as the ‘pinch’ (2012: xi) – a conflict between the feelings of the worker and the company’s demand for authenticity. In a call centre, emotional dissonance might lead to the ‘feelings of guilt and stress callers experience as they try to convince customers to buy insurance while maintaining a positive and enthusiastic demeanour’ (Woodcock, 2017: 53). A study of Australian call centre workers warns that ‘emotional dissonance may ultimately lead to lowered self-esteem, depression, cynicism, and alienation from work’ (Lewig & Dollard, 2003: 368). Franco Berardi has summarised the problem: ‘communication loses its character of gratuitous, pleasurable and erotic contact, becoming an economic necessity, a joyless fiction’ (2009: 87). Instead of constituting an enrichment of experience, the invitation to communicate at work has instead become an impoverishment. For Berardi, what is represented in modern forms of affective labour is not only the industrial exploitation of bodies, muscles and arms, it is the soul itself that has been put to work (Berardi, 2003: 21).
In the BBC documentary ‘The Call Centre’ (2013), the owner of the call centre, Nev Wiltshire, articulates the problem from a manager’s perspective: ‘Happy people sell, miserable bastards don’t. Isn’t that right?’ A powerful responsibility is placed on workers to perform in a certain way, regardless of any emotional challenges they may face. In a later scene in the documentary, for example, the camera focuses on workers receiving torrents of abuse down the phone from prospective customers. The workers find it difficult to cope but the managerial response reframes the problem, not in terms of substandard products and uninterested customers, but rather as a problem with the attitude of the workers. What is needed is further coaching and training to force workers to admit where they went wrong and commit to improving their conduct. This attempt to get workers to internalise and take responsibility for the problem is deeply pernicious, and is itself a further source of distress, as workers are encouraged to blame themselves for the difficult client calls. This in turn contributes to an individualising environment, where workers are encouraged to make sense of their distress in terms of individual failings rather than the atrocious working conditions.
Towards an alternative
At present, the ability to mobilise emotions in the labour process seems like a particularly human activity – something that could not be adequately replicated by machines. Whether sending ‘humorous’ text messages or making emotionally persuasive phone calls, it appears that human labour remains essential to the process, especially when sales are involved. However, given that automation continues to become a possibility for a growing range of work tasks, it would perhaps be a mistake to rule out emotional domains as ripe for automation. The use of emotions by low-paid workers is, in any case, rarely a genuinely human experience, as ‘even a child… knows that the smile and “have a great day” from a customer-service-worker is fundamentally creepy’ (Cederström & Fleming 2012: 7). It isn’t easy to fool people into believing that an emotion is real, whether the performance is by a human or a machine. When emotions are put to work, the customer often finds the interaction robotic.
The possibility of a robot engaging in emotional or affective labour would first require us to bridge what – in videogame circles – is often called the ‘uncanny valley’. Before the invention of photorealistic game graphics, it mattered less to people that virtual creations could not accurately show emotions. However, as technological sophistication increases, the ‘virtual characters approaching full human-likeness will evoke a negative reaction from the viewer, due to aspects of the character’s appearance and behaviour differing from the human norm’ (Tinwell et al, 2011: 1). The uncanny valley describes the paradoxical way in which it becomes harder for people to relate to virtual characters as they become more life-like, and represents a difficult sticking point in the virtual representation of emotions. Yet there is always the possibility of exiting the valley with new technological developments. The videogame journalist, Alec Meer, for example, explains how the facial animations in the latest Call of Duty game represent a new leap: ‘I’m not saying it’s real. But I’m saying it’s an awful lot more convincing than anything else I’ve played in my life’ (2017). It seems feasible that virtual and robotic substitutes could replace certain spheres of emotional labour in the future, but it is also important to recognise that this would not necessarily liberate human workers. The tendency of automation is often to displace human labour into other sectors of work. In the case of artificial intelligence, innovations ride on the hidden labour of human workers behind screens across the world, who are labouring in conditions so bad as to induce regular emotional ‘meltdowns’ (Roberts, 2016: 5).
What is perhaps required is not simply the automation of undesirable emotional labour but greater recognition of emotional labour as a form of personal estrangement, and an attempt to challenge this through action. This action would not have to appeal to some idea of an essential, universal, non-alienated human nature in order to have legitimacy. There is simply a need to counter the previous invisibility of emotional labour by recognising that it is both a skilled and potentially damaging form of work. There is a need to shift the critical focus away from workers’ apparent ‘failure to perform’ and on to the structural demands of affective labour. There is a need to recognise the struggles and refusals of workers as a point of strength and a latent form of resistance. And there is also a need to ask questions about what kind of work is useful and we want to do, and whether the emotions might be put to work in more worthy ways.
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