Why this intense celebrating of emotional labor in my workplace??
June 9, 2018 9:12 AM   Subscribe

Working in mental health care, I'm now in a department where there is such an intense culture of demanding emotional labor of each other (99% women) that I'm trying to understand it better, through this experience. I've followed the emotional labor thread with a lot of interest. But I'm taken by surprise in my current worksituation. Any thoughts or new ideas, or things I've missed because I haven't followed publications since the EL thread here. Also, I'm very interested in comparing with other professional sectors or circles.

Public sector/health care seems to be inherently intense in EL, places where employees are mostly women (so there seem to be no men directly either actively or passively enforcing this).
The workplace, 2500 employees, is thoroughly underfacilitating the primary process (the process where the employees actually are minute to minute in contact with the patients) while demanding high production. Production here means outpatient (psycho-)therapy for mental health care. But nothing new here, right? The thing that amazes me is that about 6 of 22 people (who all mostly have master's and even professional degrees) in the outpatient department leave each year, and there's an insane amount of labor in organizing their party. The current one's for someone going on their pension, which is probably different from someone going to work elsewhere, but still. Songs are made and practiced and have to reflect on the employee, their working-past, personal life etc. The songs have to be from the 50's or some old musical about nurses. Symbolic presents have to be given by each coworker in a circle where all the others are listening, and it'll have to refer to some profound thing in your relationship with this coworker, or some massive detailed praise. Even if you hardly knew this specific employee because they weren't in your small team or you never worked much with them, because the plan is always that everyone has to do it on their own. Of course there's a collective present as well, everybody has to chip in (envelopes with your name on it, that you have to cross off). The desire for the specific present has to be asked by one, bought by another colleague. Then, there's a minisymposium, and a reception, and of course a dinner in yet another place where everybody has to bring food (make it the days before, take it on the commute, put it somewhere during the whole working day). During the celebratory day you can't see a lot of patients because of the plans, so you'll have to work overtime on other days to make up for the lost production). The dinner part is somewhere else (of course not a restaurant that's convenient nearby) but a community centre or other, that's rented (by another colleague) and the workplace lunchroom as well as the community centre have to be cleared out and decorated with stuff that has to be brought there and actually hung up and removed (by yet more or the same colleagues). Then both places have to be cleaned up, by "everyone", so there's no leaving on time/early. And of course the potluck stuff has to be coordinated so that not everybody will make and bring the same foods. Speeches have to be prepared etc. Loads of emails about this for weeks, where you have to keep answering all the different demands, because everybody has to work with.

At other times, when someone is pregnant, there have to be baskets made, where all the individual colleagues have to put in a present at a certain time, with card and meaningful utterances on it. The most popular girls (thats sarcastic: women-colleagues) then go in a small group to visit the new mom. Mostly the moms are not replaced on the workfloor so we all have to try to see all their patients as well, for the months they're on leave. Maybe all this extensive social labor, is actually a way to not confront management with very reasonable demands (like coffeemachine not in the waitingroom, or a meetings not during lunch, or bathrooms separate from the patients and their families, or maternity leave replacement-there's actually money set aside for that). It's like this department is like kids that abreact on each other, when parents (management) neglect them. Hey, we work in mental health care, I'm trying to understand it as best I can!
And so on and so on. As we're also daily caring for patients who have gotten too little attention all their lives, and who we can't give enough either (because of production insanity, and just because institutions can't really completely make up for societal faults), and most womencolleagues have kids at home to take care of as well, so they can't work overtime. Also on lunchbreak, if you can have it, most of the time, at least someone is going toward a burnout, or has a sick kid or something else where you have to really feel for them and give them attention, or there's a crisis/suicidal patient to be discussed, because management (and we) don't allow time to confer with each other much outside of lunchtime. So you can push in your lunch and push out some more emotional or actual work. I just really don't understand the intensity of this, and the way everyone is repeating it on each other.

I've been busy with this one colleague's leaving-ceremony for weeks. And it's just one of the very many colleagues I've worked with since I came to work in this place a couple of years ago. Due to my specific role, continuous restructuring and because I was last-in, I've been moved around and have worked in about 6 different departments now. So maybe my feelings just don't run as deep. But why not just have a drink and a toast with the colleagues in a nearby cafe/restaurant etc, and have a speech by the manager, some cheap fingerfood made by the cafe and a central gift from all. So we don't have to clean up etc etc etc.

If you don't help all the time, don't pose interested questions, or write damn cards etc, you're frowned upon. It seems aggressive, as if it has to do with a lot of forcedly endured misery that they now bestow on the next generation.
And we're all very highly educated, not really very un-emancipated you'd think.

I conform while being massively surprised and also shocked, but the next day I need them hard to be able to get work done for patients, and families. These things are organized informally in large part, so they are subject to the social hierarchy I think. If you don't cook food, you don't get help to do therapy. The more the patients are intense, the more you need the colleagues to do you the favor of helping. So patients suffer here (as through any extreme workculture nonsense in healthcare). And it almost feels like you have to be all-over-woman, deeply present like a massive breast at all times. You can't just say: it's work, it's professional, please don't try to push out any more emotional engagement, from me, please! I'm trying to have lunch, I'm trying to go pee, I'm off work, really.

I wouldn't want my caretaking colleagues to have to do so much work whenever the time's there that I choose to leave (or am placed in another team). Come on. It's my party, I'll organise it and keep it simple. I'd like a speech, but I don't want to force colleagues in some ceremonial thing to express their emotions towards me. At all. What is up with this? Especially in mental health care, to cultivate this kind of culture seems kind of sadist, and masochist at the same time, to demand so much from your women-colleagues (and the few mostly non-cis men) when they just only got professional jobs since a few decades, and the sad thing is that a huge amount of women-workforce is in these primary process roles in lower education/healthcare etc. It's all hard enough to combine it all with home as it is, so why in the hell make it so much worse in this department?
Everyone can totally count on me during (and sometimes after) workhours, I'm a teamplayer, but in a professional sense. I'm friendly, I care about people. But not too keen on the rest of it.

Does anybody know if this emotional labor celebrating culture is cultivated more extremely in mental health care? Do I miss something that could help me understand it better? I think understanding it better could help me feel some relief.
posted by Litehouse to Work & Money (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Trauma Stewardship might help your framing of this as a workplace structural issue (which you're right, it is). I think what happens is you get a bunch of empathetic helpers all working together in an underfunded overburdened system that they have no power to change, then tell them all that "they're all in this together!", and also because the profession (at least at line-staff level) is mostly women who have been socialized to help others and not take care of themselves (and therapists seem particularly horrible at this), you end up with.... what you're describing.

How much power do you have to opt out? When I got to a supervisor-level I basically outlawed the elaborate birthday lunches and gifts (in large part because they were being unequally planned, in that the popular kids were getting big presents and long lunches and others were getting a perfunctory card). Can you at least advocate for a more formalized system of assigning work so that you don't have to bank on popularity to get your work done? Conversely, do you have so little power that you can maybe opt out without causing much of a stir?
posted by lazuli at 9:40 AM on June 9, 2018 [8 favorites]

That sounds incredibly stressful.

I experienced something like that at a much smaller scale teaching at a liberal arts college: having students unload about their personal lives on me, being made to organize parties and entertainment for them, bake for them, create in class activities, things like that. The last straw was when a student yelled at me in frustration at her grades, and my colleagues told me it was just part of the job. I decided that was not what I wanted to do with my career, and I'm much happier and less emotionally drained now. I know some people find that sort of job fulfilling - more power to them!

Oh, and half my department was male, including the ones most enthusiastic about party-throwing.

I would seriously recommend exploring other options. Maybe even a department change within your current work place?
posted by redlines at 9:49 AM on June 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Is there a manager/department head? Because they should really be dealing with reigning this in and re-focusing on your department goals (serving patient’s needs). If you are having one quarter of your department leave every year there should be the opportunity to change the culture, unless you have a clique of long-termsrs that are enforcing these social conventions. It would be difficult to change it yourself, hence the need for management to actually manage the situation.
posted by saucysault at 10:13 AM on June 9, 2018 [4 favorites]

Do you have a parent who is old and frail, kids, or a chronic health condition? I hate lying, but this stuff becomes competitive and spirals to this level, and the people on the front lines who call a halt to it can get villainized. I would talk to your supervisor and explain that you have #thing that is expensive and is causing time pressure at home, therefore you will have to dramatically reduce financial contributions and any unpaid overtime due to work celebrations. Be super-appreciative of the work others do but consistently say that you have family pressures that mean you Just Can't. I'm so sorry, but if I come to the song rehearsal, I'll have to make up patient time, and I Just Can't. I'll miss Terry (puts 10 in envelope). So thrilled for Chris and the little one, I have a onesie to add to the basket(that I picked up at Marshalls - 3 for 10 and non-gendered, and saving the next 2 for the next babies). I will have to be in the office but I can come to the dinner and will bring food. So sorry to miss the speeches, but I Just Can't.

Your supervisor should know and probably doesn't, that the overtime should be being paid, and this is creating a liability for the agency. If it were documented, the number of unpaid hours could be quite expensive. If 1 person sued, the agency could get hit for all emploee's back wages for a couple years. (IANAL, but have owned a business, worked in payroll, etc.) However, telling your supervisor could be difficult, people have an astonishing and cheerful disregard for federal labor law. I have worked at a company where that bit them in the ass pretty hard. Also, all this "morale" affects the ability to perform the actual work of caring for patients, and that's just absurd.

I like work potlucks and like celebrating retirements and babies, and I'm even on board with the monthly cake for June birthdays, etc. Leaving parties should be a drink after work for people who are moving on. I have experienced this more in Helping professions.
posted by theora55 at 10:13 AM on June 9, 2018 [8 favorites]

It's hard to believe that people with young children at home are happy with this, even if they act like they are, once they come back to work from their baby-having. Seriously who wants to miss their 2 hour time with their baby before its bed time to go out again with colleagues you see all day? Try to step back and see if *everyone* really seems to be as into this as everyone else. It seems like EL rituals take on a life of their own and it's possible that from the outside, some other woman, either with family at home or just a life outside of workplace thinks she's the only one who feels exploited by this practice. She might see you as part of the will to do this, just as you see everyone else that way. If it's not really universally beloved there may be a crack in the wall that will permit some scaling down.
posted by nantucket at 10:24 AM on June 9, 2018 [4 favorites]

I just want to say that emotional labor usually isn’t a product of “men enforcing it,” it’s generally a necessary and important part of community life that is neglected by men and therefore falls entirely on women. In general the only reason to celebrate women doing less of it is because the division of emotional labor is highly gendered and unfair.

That doesn’t mean that what’s happening in your workplace is GOOD, just that no men around to enforce it isn’t a mystery.
posted by stoneandstar at 11:20 AM on June 9, 2018 [15 favorites]

To be clear it does totally sound dysfunctional in your work environment. :(
posted by stoneandstar at 11:23 AM on June 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

Good God. This is crazy, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it contributed to your high turnover. I would bet anything that it’s really because of a few core people, and that most of your coworkers don’t like it, but feel helpless to do anything about it. And I’m sure there would be consequences for trying to stop it. The only explanation I can think of is that it functions as a distraction from the frustrations of working in mental health. Some people probably find it more fulfilling than doing, you know, their actual jobs. But I don’t see how anyone gets anything done. I wish I had a solution besides get the fuck out. You might try kicking this over to Ask a Manager. This dysfunctional bullshit is something she’s really good with.

I’m also not sure I’d call this emotional labor - and people can tell me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think of emotional labor as being this time consuming, though it’s emotionally exhausting. This is just unpaid, unnecessary bullshit labor. I’m furious on your behalf.
posted by FencingGal at 11:50 AM on June 9, 2018 [30 favorites]

Just to compare: in my nonprofit educational setting, this would be wildly extreme. AT my current place of work, we don't recognize birthdays. We do do wedding and baby showers, which are 1 hour, with suggested gift of a book for babies, and registry for weddings. What we celebrate are work accomplishments - a nice catered lunch after a big event - which makes a whole lot more sense in our setting.

I would run screaming from a work culture like the one you describe. I wouldn't worry so much about understanding it as approaching management to change it.
posted by Miko at 11:52 AM on June 9, 2018 [9 favorites]

I have thought, in similar situations, that one problem was the inefficiency of people trying to meet their own needs but only being `allowed' to do so in service to others. So, perhaps, there's overkill in making occasions fancy because no-one is getting enough respect. But the lack of respect is a work problem and won't be solved by distant restaurants. Another big one is that the decoration fussiness is the only aesthetic outlet some people allow themselves, but aesthetic work is vital to some people. It's so difficult to object to the way those things are being done without seeming to object to the beneficial purpose. If someone is using it as cover to not do the real work, it will be politically explosive.

Similarly, un-managed places might be trying to not admit they're understaffed, but also trying to avoid over-bureacratizing. Sounds more like the former. I was struck by
I need them hard to be able to get work done for patients, and families. These things are organized informally in large part, so they are subject to the social hierarchy I think. If you don't cook food, you don't get help to do therapy. The more the patients are intense, the more you need the colleagues to do you the favor of helping.
because it sounds as though there's no... no time-keeping? Nowhere all the tasks are kept track of and also who solves them kept track of? Do you keep personal time-sheets or logs? (Mayybe you could start logging explicit time spent on the non-work; not "thinking of something deep to say to acquaintance" but "time rehearsing songs, travelling to community center, removing decorations".)
posted by clew at 12:06 PM on June 9, 2018 [4 favorites]

If you don't cook food, you don't get help to do therapy.

This specifically is something to bring up to your manager - work resources are being allocated unfairly (and withheld as punishment) depending on social hierarchy.
posted by saucysault at 1:03 PM on June 9, 2018 [18 favorites]

I went from a higher emotional labour environment to a zero emotional labour environment in my work place where we don’t even attempt to celebrate birthdays. It is so freeing! I think it is industry dependent.

I have a fantasy that you have a “caring circle“ meeting, after this departure and preferably long before the next. Bring a stress stick, decorate it, and pass it around asking your colleagues to share stresses from their lives. Then reveal that you want to have a MORE caring workplace. Talk about giving people appreciation before they leave through simple thanks every day. To reduce stress. And that also caring by respecting personal time and eliminating some uncompensated labour is key, and let’s give the gift to each other of rebooting the over-the-top party tradition. In other words, wage war on emotional labour by framing it as a higher order of thoughtfulness to dump this lame-ass tradition.
posted by warriorqueen at 1:28 PM on June 9, 2018 [15 favorites]

Wait -- you mean the patients are impacted if their therapist didn't cook food for a work party? That is seriously terrible and the kind of thing that could result in a scandal. What if a patient feels the consistency or regularity of their expectations for therapy were compromised, and finds out why? In my small city this could be a headline. It's bad enough to pressure each other socially with over the top, passive aggressive expectations, but for this to impact people who are coming to your clinic for mental health issues is really outrageous, in a way that far transcends the emotional labor going on between y'all. If I'm wrong in my interpretation disregard this; if I'm hearing you correctly I think you should talk to someone above all this, even someone on the board.
posted by nantucket at 6:26 PM on June 9, 2018 [4 favorites]

I'm a social worker who spent some years in the chronic homelessness circles which is super intense high need work with similar dynamics though definately not this bad.

I opted out of lots of this bullshit, especially anything after hours. I also studiously defended my right to lunch everyday.

Phrases I used "I'm practicing self care." " My breaks help me help others." "I need time to myself" I let everyone know my opinion on it. People grumbled but I was accepted and kept the job for five years.

I would advocate that goodbyes have a time limit during work hours (everyone gets a goodbye on the friday the week before their last day for 30 minutes at lunch for example).

Mental health work pay is not high enough to be giving gifts and was really a financial burden for me. I absolutely hated it.

Really these cultures have to change from the top down when they get out of control like this. Work is hard and just work. These people are your coworkers, not your clients and not a romantic partner. They deserve respect, praise and friendliness, but not your precious home time, and not time that should go to your clients.
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:03 PM on June 9, 2018 [5 favorites]


...because management (and we) don't allow time to confer with each other much outside of lunchtime....

Is super concerning and needs to be addressed separately.

All therapists in an institution as large as yours should have at least one hour if supervision a week to discuss cases with management one on one. This is to make staff better clinicians , exploring biases, things you may have said that didn't come out right, your personal reactions, and brainstorming new approaches. This should be paid work time. This is extremely important and it is absolutely inexcusable for it not to be in place.

In addition there should be a formal debriefing process for difficult events (deaths, tarasoff cases, ect).
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:15 PM on June 9, 2018 [5 favorites]

I don’t think this is about healthcare. Honestly this sounds very much like a lot of the celebrations we had in the military, which is why my first reaction to your statement was “oh that actually sounds nice”. But also in the military you would get time off to do this stuff or it would be considered work time.

I wonder if this tradition is left over from a time which was similar? Like, maybe people didn’t work as long weeks, or maybe there weren’t as many patients so people could take time off during the day or something?
posted by corb at 9:02 PM on June 9, 2018

I've read some of the answers but not all of them. I just want to say, as a person who works in mental health and has for going on ten years, this isn't normal for the workplace. My current work environment, the boss keeps trying to make space for morale-boosting (EL) but not many people are buying in. My lunch hour is mine, except for scheduled meetings. The venting and processing of trauma intensity is facilitated directly through actual conversation with colleagues, staffing of cases, or the ability to go take a walk if desired. In other work environments, that were more toxic, there was still not this massive aggressive expectation to perform emotional labor.

It's especially strange to me that mental health workers expect to extract emotional activity from each other. Usually, mental health workers recognize that you have only so much listening to give, so you make jokes and cope as best you can while conserving the energy rather than using more of it.

Someone with a lot of social clout at your org initiated this, and I suspect a fair number of participants are only pretending to enjoy it.
posted by crunchy potato at 5:28 AM on June 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

Does your employer have a human resources department? Can you talk to them about the burdensome nature of this situation? If I were HR, I would be shutting this mess down *yesterday*...
posted by mccxxiii at 6:51 AM on June 10, 2018

Who is driving this? My guess is it's one or two queen bees who have no other social life and are trying to get all their needs met at work. Depending on how entrenched these women are, you might just have to find a different job. But if turnover is high and one leaves, that might be an opportunity to broach the topic, e.g., "Now that Jane is gone, do the rest of us really want to maintain the same level of party planning and gift-giving? That was really more her thing."
posted by Jacqueline at 6:07 PM on June 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

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