The Hidden Cost: Emotional Labour in Customer Service Roles

Laura E Fox
7 min readNov 2, 2023

“Give us a smile, love!” I was 19 and working my first job as a Croupier, a role I would remain in for a decade. My hands danced across the chips piled next to the roulette wheel that spun lazily to my left. I stared down the pile of chips old mate had stacked around the winning number like Lego blocks and tried to calculate the payout, my brow slightly furrowed as I performed the mental gymnastics of calculating a sum that most people would use a calculator for. In any other situation, being asked to smile while clearly in deep concentration would be considered absurd; here, it is expected. Like every female croupier, I found myself in a role where my youth, appearance and personality had become incorporated with the product that was both sold and bought. In the end, it was not the game that was on sale, but an inherent part of my personality — for $15 a game, you too can buy my smile, my small talk, my patience, my sympathy when you lose and my happiness when you win. For $15 a game, you can buy me.

Arlie Hochschild coins this form of industrialised emotional exchange as emotional labour — where a person in a customer-facing role is required to manipulate their emotions to fit the customer’s expectations, thus transforming feelings and emotions into marketable commodities. This concept builds on Marxist ideas of labour, where labour has evolved to encompass an economy of feelings, thoughts and physical actions that are monetised and used to fulfil capitalist relationships. However, it is predominantly women who bear the load of emotional labour within both the private and public spheres, and this burden commences not from when women join the workforce; but from early childhood, where we are trained and taught how to both deliver and suppress our genuine emotions to serve the labour economy. This essay will discuss the role of emotional labour as a gendered resource in capitalist economies through an autoethnographically lens of my decade-long experience as a hospitality worker in the casino industry

I. Background on Emotional Labor

In The Managed Heart, Hochschild considers the issue of managing and expressing emotions as a requirement of certain jobs. This concept has only recently emerged in socialist studies as a reflection of the evolving dynamics of work as society has progressed from a post-industrialism and production-based economy to one that has placed increasing value on service and interpersonal interactions. Liz Deans expands on Hochschild’s emotional labour theory by highlighting the interconnected nature of emotional labour with cognitive labour; where the act of expressing or suppressing genuine emotions as a method to strategically manage the emotions of those around them creates a mental strain. This invisible form of mental management of emotions gives rise to the cognitive labour she coins the mental load.

In today’s economy, sectors that have been uniquely gendered encompass some form of person-to-person interaction, such as care-giving, hospitality and customer service roles, demand employees to smother their true emotions — and by extension, their authentic selves — to project emotions that are deemed ‘appropriate’ for their role, such as compassion, patience and cheerfulness. However, this expectation can create an emotional dissonance between the authenticity of true emotional experiences and those that are performative for the benefit of others. The commercialisation of this form of performative personhood becomes less about marketing a product or service, and more about selling an emotion — albeit one that is often not expressly required for a product or service to be delivered but is nonetheless an underlying demand of a company and its customers. It is an invisible burden carried by all workers in the service and care industries. The insidious and silent nature of this labour requires an inquiry both into (i) where this expectation comes from and (ii) the toll of such work.

II. Early childhood: A training ground for emotional labour and its long-term cost

As a croupier, I observed a distinct difference in how male gamblers would respond to losses depending on the gender of the croupier. While my male colleague collected the losing bets with an ‘Ah, tough luck mate,’ that required no further coddling, the male patrons on tables where the croupier was female required a gentler touch — one that often required a softly murmured ‘Sorry, mate’ as if I was personally responsible for the luck of the cards. Any absence of emotional nannying on my end would swiftly escalate to aggression and hostility by the male patrons. Essentially, it was expected for female croupiers to provide emotional labour as part of the game, whereas this was not the case for their male counterparts.

At the centre of Hochschild’s argument is the premise that women are systematically conditioned to engage in emotional labour from a young age. For example, girls are often encouraged to participate in play activities that involve caring for others. When I was much younger, I was invited to play with my friend’s new Baby Born doll. However, even as a child, I thought the idea of looking after a doll that urinated, cried and required feeding to be the worst game imaginable; but for my friend, this doll was the training ground to practice empathetic nurturing and emotional sensitivity where the stakes were low. While most would view such play as harmless, these games nonetheless lead to girls learning from a young age to shoulder the responsibility of care-giving in all aspects of their lives. Toys that cry or express other forms of emotional dysregulation are especially insidious as it requires girls to learn to manage the emotions of others. Society builds upon this early conditioning by creating work where women are expected to manage their demeanour as a means to manage the emotions of others. The consequences of this form of emotional management are multifaceted. For example, as a female Croupier, I was required to shelve my own emotions for the sake of managing the emotions of the men who make up the majority of gamblers. Each hour, there was an expectation to put my authentic self on hold and deliver happiness and cheerfulness as the product. There were never any genuine human connections on the Blackjack tables. Over time, this dissonance between authentic and inauthentic emotional personhood became exhausting, and eventually I became burnt out. Depression set in, and resentment built. Consistently maintaining this level of inauthenticity created an overwhelming mental load. Moreover, the silent nature of the demand to perform this emotional work resulted in the weight of that load feeling enormously undervalued. Having emotional and mental labour recognised is difficult when it does not form part of an official job description. In essence, Hochschild and Deans theories of emotional labour highlights both the emotional demands placed on women and the need for this demand to be re-evaluated and recognised as genuine labour.

III. Emotional Labour and the Gender Pay Gap

The interconnection between the value of emotional labour becomes evident when we consider the wage disparities between service and non-service jobs. Service roles where women are expected to consistently display warmth, empathy and emotional availability beyond the delivery of their immediate job responsibilities, are often the subject of lower wages. These roles are often female-dominated fields, like care-giving and customer service or front-facing roles, and often provide less consistency and job security as they require shift work and are more susceptible to market influences, in contrast to jobs that demand less emotional labour and are distinctly male-dominated. For example, while hospitality workers across the country were subject to months of employment in the face of COVID-19 in 2020, as a Paralegal, I was allowed the security to keep working from home. This wage and job-security disparity between service-delivery jobs and non-service jobs is illustrative of how emotional labour is significantly undervalued in the economic market. Second, this gendered expectation to deliver emotional labour can inadvertently restrict women’s job opportunities. The myth that women possess an inclination for emotional sensitivity can lead employers to favour women for roles that require managing the emotions of others — which in turn returns us to the first premise, creating an ouroboros where these jobs are often valued less and subsequently paid less. In summary, although emotional labour is universally demanded in the workforce, the disproportionate burden placed on women and its subsequent economic and professional consequences emphasise the need for society to recognise and reassess the gendered aspects of emotional labour.

IV. Conclusion

When examining my experiences as a Croupier by applying Hochschild’s and Dean’s theories, it becomes clear that emotional labour has uniquely gendered dynamics. From early childhood, women are conditioned by society to carry this emotional burden and form of mental labour. This trend continues into the workforce. Although emotional labour is expected in service-oriented roles, it is undervalued economically, especially when compared to jobs without emotional demands. The gendered expectations not only contribute to wage disparities but also limit the range of economic opportunities available to women. As society progresses, it becomes essential to acknowledge and adequately recognise the emotional labour that women provide within the economy so that it does not continue to operate as an invisible barrier that hinders women’s potential growth.

References

Arlie Russell Hochschild, ‘Between Toe and Heel’ in The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (University of California Press, 2012) ) 137–161.

Arlie Russell Hochschild, ‘Feeling Rules’ in The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (University of California Press, 2012) 56–75.

Arlie Russell Hochschild, ‘Gender, Status and Feeling’ in The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (University of California Press, 2012) 162–184.

Liz Dean, Brendan Churchill and Leah Ruppanner, ‘The Mental Load: Building a Deeper Theoretical Understanding of How Cognitive and Emotional Labour Overload women and mothers’ (2022) 25(1) Community, Work & Family 13–29.

Mary Ellen Guy and Meredith A. Newman, ‘Women’s Jobs, Men’s Jobs: Sex Segregation and Emotional Labor’ (2004) 64(3) Public Administration Review 289–298

Riccardo Bellofiore, ‘The Concept of Labor in Marx’ (1998) 28(3) International Journal of Political Economy 4–34.

Steve Taylor, ‘Emotional Labour and the New Workplace’ in Thompson, P, Warhurst C (eds) Workplaces of the Future (Palgrave, London, 1998) 84–103.

Valerie Walkerdine, ‘Femininity as Performance’ (1989) 15(3) Oxford Review of Education 267–279.

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Laura E Fox

LLB (Hons) and BA (Gender Studies and Philosophy) student at the Australian National University. A collection of academic essays.