Why take the emotional labour of other animals seriously?

May 26 2021

Tiamat Warda

A guide dog skillfully leads their visually impaired human partner through a city of intriguing distractions and stressors, while a police horse stands firm against a passionate crowd. For both species, these are common occurrences during their work-lives. Yet, encountering them calmly generally speaks strongly against their instincts. Despite perhaps initially feeling flighty, fearful, irritated, frustrated that they cannot indulge in a distraction or follow a smell that has entered their nose or overjoyed at the sight of food laying in their path, they need to alter their feelings and redirect their attention back to focusing on the task at hand to complete it with a professional demeanour. In other words, their work fundamentally requires emotional labour. Emotional labour was most notably defined by Hochschild (1983: 7) as the act of presenting displays during work-related interactions which align with expectations placed on workers by employers, clients, and colleagues within their given social, economic, and cultural guidelines, for example.

Coulter (2016) is one of a handful of researchers to have addressed the role of emotional labour in the work of species other than humans. Referring to police dogs as an example, Coulter (2016: 73) wrote that workers “must learn to control and harness their instincts and feelings, illustrating what could aptly be called emotion work and emotional labor”. However, how do individuals manage their emotion displays? The aforementioned guide dog and police horse were likely using the strategy of deep acting to perform emotional labour. Deep acting results from an internal stimulation and alteration of feelings to produce genuine emotion displays which convey and align with what is expected, using predominantly cognitive change (Geddes and Lindebaum, 2020; Lee and Madera, 2019; Wen et al., 2019). This can be achieved through redirecting focus, reappraising, and imaging (Liu et al., 2019: 579). Another common strategy when performing emotional labour is surface acting, which refers to presenting “fake” emotion displays by suppressing more authentic feelings instead of altering them (Fouquereau et al., 2019; Lee and Madera, 2019; S Liu et al., 2019).

As the recent Roundtable organised by the Animals & Biodiversity Think Tank programme and hosted by the Global Research Network entitled “Animal Labour in a Multispecies Society: a social justice issue?” showed, there is currently a turn toward acknowledging all animals, human or otherwise, as working, whether it be voluntary, mandated, or necessary for their sustenance. Nevertheless, emotional labour has been given surprisingly little attention in existing literature, despite being inherently required in any work which involves interpersonal exchanges (Hochschild, 1983; Leidner, 1999; Wharton, 2009). Surely, emotional labour can be quite enjoyable and a skill which workers are known to take pride in honing (Hochschild, 2009). However, without beneficial practices and regulations in place, such as those asked of Coulter’s (2016; 2020) concept of humane jobs, extensive and prolonged levels of surface acting, in particular, can lead to decreased well-being (Fouquereau et al., 2019; van Gelderen et al., 2017) and higher chances of burnout (Yin et al., 2019), for example. I therefore propose that the emotional labour of all species is extended more critical consideration as part of the move toward humane jobs, which can also, as Coulter (2016: 73) wrote in relation to emotional labour of police dogs, it can lift the curtain to reveal the many complex and nuanced forms of work that play a role in an individual’s broader work-life. With this information, practices, legislation, regulation, and therefore work-lives can be improved.


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