How do organizations support emotional laborers?
June 1, 2017 2:00 PM   Subscribe

How do well-running organizations support and empower workers who do a lot of emotional labor?

I work for a software company that values communication and emotional intelligence. The hiring process for developers places a high value on inter-personal communication. We 'pair-program' 100% of the time, which means that developers spend a lot of their day being 'on', communicating and working intensely with each other.

While this is a positive work environment for me right now, I don't think find that the company does enough to support or empower workers related to their emotional labor. There is no explicit communication or emotional training.

This came up because one engineer was having a really hard time managing their own emotions, and saying difficult things to a client. I recommended that a PM who is really good at communication mentor him...and then realized that the organization as a whole isn't doing enough to support him.

This is causing me to ask: what do industries where emotional labor is closer to the core of the job do? How do those industries keep burnout from happening? How are laborers supported in those environments? Is there specific training or practices?

Example workers that I can think of: therapists, clergy-members, social workers, teachers, etc.

I'm especially interested in specific resources, people to look up or talk to, organizations, training materials, practices, videos, etc. I'm looking to make the case to my company to take more action.
posted by justalisteningman to Work & Money (10 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I listened to a podcast today which touched on this, in an interview with an "employee development consultant", it was surprisingly enlightening. There's a transcript on site, as well.
posted by Gin and Broadband at 2:10 PM on June 1, 2017 [7 favorites]

Some of that training comes from the training of the individuals before they get into organizations (I'm thinking therapists and clergy in particular), in terms of boundaries and self-care and emotional processing. I'm not sure it's really translatable. It might be helpful if you were able to be more specific about what types of problems you're seeing.
posted by lazuli at 3:26 PM on June 1, 2017

This article from 2014 discussed this to some degree from the perspective of people who perform emotional labor while moderating sites like YouTube. Having a culture that recognizes this labor and provides space for people to vent and connect internally, as well as resources such as therapy and breaks/time off for people who have to deal with any sort of harrowing situations that involve emotional labor, seems to be part of the key to this.

This is something we've discussed in my workplace in the context of regulating one's emotions while dealing with difficult or demanding situations, navigating the narrow space between bonding as a team together or letting the emotional valence of a situation get out of hand and poison the team's morale and client relationships. How one builds those relationships is so important to the work of an agency, and it's well worth finding ways to discuss it directly with your team.

One thing we specifically do as a project-management team is discuss team-member stresses in an open and nonjudgmental way. We try to recognize this as just a thing that can occur, given the work that we do involves interacting with humans—often on deadline, often with multiple projects demanding one's attention—and be open about what's occurring and how we can best support team members. Find ways to surface this frictionlessly, making it part of your standard processes, and it becomes so much easier to have these conversations. For example, if you're agile and follow scrum practices, encouraging openness and recognition of difficult situations that may have arisen during scrums and sprint retrospectives can be a step in the direction of fostering this sort of companywide recognition of emotional labor and its role in the work we do. Recognizing that people are human and that there are limits to human endurance is quite important, and this comes down to the language we use at times, e.g., referring to people as people or team members, rather than "resources," and ensuring that time off or vacation time is not spoken of derisively or judged in any way.

Even things like empowering your team to embrace radical candor can be valuable in this respect. Just changing the language around client and internal relationships can be super useful for fostering an environment where emotional labor is recognized, valued, and supported in healthy ways. For my part, this has been something that I've made a focus in my internal reviews, as well as in talks I've given at company events and in our internal learning sessions. Getting people talking about this openly is a great first step toward recognition that one doesn't just have to suck it up, so to speak. Also, letting people know you trust them, you respect them, and you have given them the resources they need to make decisions and speak directly with clients or the public goes a long way.
posted by limeonaire at 5:10 PM on June 1, 2017 [6 favorites]

Also, another thing that really helps with this in my company is that every employee has a coach—not a manager, but a coach, someone who is perhaps higher up in some sense in terms of seniority or position, but who is specifically chosen to be part of the coaching program because they are good at mentoring and are committed to that kind of support for team members. This goes into company structure, as our company is flat in terms of hierarchy—anyone is empowered to speak directly to anyone else and ask anyone for anything they need—but is organized into teams with coaches. You may not be able to totally rework your company's structure like that, but having a coaching program that everyone takes part in seems like it's one key to the way our agency manages this kind of thing. It provides that sort of structural way to give people a nonjudgmental space to discuss any difficulties they're encountering and productive ways of handling them, people they can talk to, resources they can draw upon, etc. And it gives people a space to think about all of this, including emotional labor, in the context of their individual professional development. I highly recommend implementing something like this if you can.
posted by limeonaire at 5:25 PM on June 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Agents, managers, producers, directors--much of show biz requires emotional labor, and usually, these people are rewarded with money, very public thanks from their clients, reputation within the film or television community and praise for their product or archive,ent. Much more is at stake when a film director or artist's manager has to engage that artist than someone monitoring YouTube.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:51 PM on June 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Clergy in most denominations in the US receive it during their M.Div. or equivalent training (the M.Div. being a professional degree that prepares one for ministry and combines scholarship about religion and theology with practical training for ministry). My divinity school had students preparing for ministry in small ministerial formation groups where they met frequently with experienced ministers and talked about a lot of those kinds of issues; specific ministry formation groups for second and third years that focused on particular areas of practice -- rural ministry, medical ministry (hospital chaplains etc), people who might work with college students, or in multiracial settings, etc; paid and supervised field internships; access to therapists and pastoral counselors; training on particular difficult aspects of the job you might run across (someone confessing a crime to you, say, or ministering to your community after a racist event); training on self-care; etc.

In most denominations, students preparing for ministry have to pass a psychological screening -- sometimes one at the start of formation and one at graduation -- to ensure they're psychologically suited and able to serve as ministers. Both ideally catching sociopaths entering the ministry to prey on people, but also identifying people who don't have the emotional resilience or maturity for full-time ministry.

Once they're in ministry, there's a variety of supports in place. In organized denominations (Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, etc.), they'll have access to counseling, support, and training through their regional or local organization. There are typically yearly meetings of larger super-regional groups with lots of training available. There are lots of psychiatrists and psychologists and MCSWs and so on who specialize in treating ministers. There's a lot of written information. For example, my divinity school has a semi-annual alumni magazine (which I receive); this issue it has articles ministry in prisons, responding to domestic violence as a pastor, and ministering to sexual and gender diversity within the community. And then of course it's a highly-networked community where everyone's on five billion e-mail lists and facebook groups and traditional magazines and academic journals and so whenever someone is struggling with something in their ministry they can post to facebook and immediately get 47 people commiserating and another dozen going, "Hey let me put you touch with my friend who's an expert on this ..."

This level of support runs through not just the theology and the counseling parts of ministry, but also the really practical aspects. For example, everyone had to take a preaching class in which they not only learned how to write and deliver sermons (and the history and theology of sermonating, and a sort of "great books" of classic sermons) but there was an entire component of the course on the anatomy of voice production, and every student met individually with a voice coach and an otolaryngologist to break them of any bad habits in voice production and ensure their "instrument" was healthy, to avoid problems that could end in years of sore throats. They had sound engineers in for a day to talk about microphones and speakers and how to make the best of different set-ups. They had different pulpits to test out, and funny stories of how things could go wrong with different pulpits (tall men who are nervous tend to cling to a skinny pulpit stand with their knees and it looks terrible). They had drama coaches and liturgists both come out to help us figure out the right place between "acting" and "everyday" where you sound "preachery" and you're adequately getting the message across in slightly dramatized speech, without sounding stupid.

Basically, there's no part of the job that's trainable that they don't take care to train, for the highly arcane corners of theodicy to the ultra-prosaic ones of how to stand properly behind a pulpit if it has a skinny stand. Maybe the software shop equivalent would be having some ergonomics experts and physical therapists in to make sure you're as physically comfortable as possible and taking care of your bodies before the carpal tunnel sets in. And then maybe lunch seminars from time to time where you talk about, say, the ethical obligations of programmers, more 50,000 feet issues. Both in addition to regular continuing ed opportunities to keep your skills sharp.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:14 PM on June 1, 2017 [5 favorites]

I have several family members working in the social services field, where it's referred to as "professional supervision" i.e. a therapist for therapists. It's basically an EAP program that pairs employees with a therapist so they have a safe place to vent a process what they've been exposed to. My workplace (government) also offers an EAP service (limited appointments though) and I'd love if they expanded the mentorship program to include all staff rather than just manager/supervisory roles.
posted by jrobin276 at 7:05 PM on June 1, 2017

Professional supervision is, usually, different from therapy. There are different ethical and legal guidelines, especially when it's being provided to pre-licensed therapists (and in most states, it's a legal requirement for pre-licensed therapists, not just a "nice to have"). It's more like an apprenticeship-type relationship, where the supervisor is there to help the supervisee process but in a way that's designed to increase the supervisee's training and experience in working with clients, not just for their own emotional health (though obviously that's part of it, too). Part of the supervisor's role is evaluating the supervisee to ensure that they are practicing ethically and legally, and that they are competent to be providing services to clients, so there's a level of evaluating/judging/guiding that's not present in therapy. As a professional supervisor, I am not my supervisees' therapist, and when I was pre-licensed and being supervised, I was also in separate individual therapy.
posted by lazuli at 9:53 PM on June 1, 2017

I've often thought about this. I've had many social worker friends, all of whom worked as counselors, and most of whom negotiated about 5 hours of weekly counseling into their contracts when they took their jobs. I assume someone senior did the counseling for the more junior level-staff, but I don't know precisely. I do know that their counseling work was grueling, and typically involved a lot of tragedy: death, refugee tragedy, battered women were all subjects they were working with regularly. When they got too burned out they went into part-time administration or teaching.

This blows my mind because it's in direct contrast with two or three doctors I know, who like the counselors deal with death and grief and illness regularly, but are expected to "man up." Typically, the doctor types seemed a bit shut-down to me; whereas more than one of the social worker types said they went into the field because they wanted to work in an arena directly connected to feeling.

It would be truly something if all this stuff weren't always so extreme.
posted by Violet Blue at 3:00 AM on June 2, 2017

FWIW, my (current) employer offers 'counseling' through an organization called Sherpaa. It's available to all employees and not specific to, say, my team -- which handles insurance and emergency calls (often involving bodily harm to people and/or pets). Unfortunately, I'm not sure how effective such a resource is as it places the onus of coping onto the worker, rather than forcing the employer to take a more active role in mitigating the emotional toll of such high-stress (and often disturbing) work.

In my previous team -- where calls were high stress, but did not typically involve bodily harm -- managers took a different approach and tried to ensure there were fun activities to do in-office to get your mind off things -- if only for a little while. Regular team building activities were also used and resulted in a very close-knit group that can lean on one another for support if needed. I found this method far more effective -- especially if the people doing the emotional labor get to help plan/weigh in on activities.
posted by stubbehtail at 6:36 AM on June 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

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