O Holy Nightmare: What to do about emotional labor and holiday burnout

by Lora Johns

CC License

The holiday season is upon us. We’re inundated with messages to be thankful, to project an “attitude of gratitude.” It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Except that for many of us, it’s not. In academic law libraries, December brings with it the end-of-semester near panic of student-led journal editors frantically begging for Bluebook help. Student patrons are approaching exam season perpetually on-edge, and it seems every professor has a last-minute urgent pre-holiday request (or five). Add to that the family and personal obligations that fall to us at this time of year, and consider whether an attitude of gratitude is what you’re really feeling.

Especially during stressful periods, it is vital to be aware of the emotional labor we perform. Emotional labor is very much a part of library work. It entails both the knowledge that the workplace has rules for displaying emotions, and the use of emotional regulation strategies to display the “right” emotions to perform our jobs successfully.

A study of librarians conducted in 2013 found that workplace demands to express positive emotions and suppress negative ones — that is, to perform emotional labor — were tied to emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and job dissatisfaction. Losing the autonomy to express one’s authentic emotions takes its toll on library employees.

There is a difference in emotional labor between surface acting and deep acting. In surface acting, people fake emotional displays to bridge the disconnect between their real feelings and the emotions they’re supposed to show. For example, an academic librarian is surface performing when she’s bored of teaching the same legal research concepts ad nauseam but has to portray enthusiasm nonetheless. Unsurprisingly, faking emotions in this way correlates strongly with emotional exhaustion and decreased job satisfaction.

Deep acting requires a person to change their emotional regulation process from the bottom up. Instead of just putting on a happy face, they reframe a situation so that their inner and outer emotions are more in sync. Empirically, deep acting is a mixed bag. Some studies show it has a positive effect on job satisfaction and burnout; others caution that deep acting takes a lot of effort, which over time could lead to burnout. But deep acting was also used most often by the librarians whose jobs involved the highest degree of interpersonal interaction. This suggests that as an emotional regulation tactic, it replenishes or conserves emotional stores better than surface acting.

The biggest takeaway of the 2013 study is that any kind of work-imposed emotional display rules are strongly associated with negative individual well-being. The only systematic way to combat burnout and job dissatisfaction, then, is for libraries to appreciate emotional labor for the hard work that it is and develop practices that help prevent library employees from feeling emotionally drained and indifferent towards their jobs.

In the meantime, we can’t wait for our institutions to hire more staff, banish difficult patrons, receive a coffer-filling donation, or instantly remove any of the other stressors we are expected to bear with a smile. We can, however, choose strategies that help us change how we perceive and react to difficult situations.

Many of us find it difficult to practice self-care, especially around the holidays. But it is critical that we make the effort. Burnout and job dissatisfaction aren’t just bad for our patrons; they’re bad for us. Study after study has shown that our own unhappiness erodes our mental and physical health.

Here are some gifts you can give yourself this holiday season to replenish your emotional stores.

Practice loving-kindness meditation

Loving-kindness meditation has its roots in Buddhist meditation and encourages the participant to think compassionate thoughts about oneself, acquaintances, strangers, and even people the participant dislikes. It has been shown to increase one’s compassion towards oneself and others. Like deep acting, it helps over time to reframe one’s perception of difficult situations (or patrons, or family members), which can help fill up your emotional tank.

Take five minutes and download Headspace or Stop, Breathe & Think to your smartphone and try a guided meditation. While it can be hard at first, practicing mindful compassion just a few minutes every day can create a positive habit to carry you through difficult times.

Let go of the need to control everything

It’s stressful enough to regulate emotional expression at work, let alone at home. Most people have had the experience of a stressful holiday dinner with relatives who drink one too many and start antagonistic conversations on hot-button issues. While I can’t advocate for yelling at grandma over a holiday ham, I will campaign for not surface-acting at home, if you can help it. Express yourself authentically in the moment, vent to a friend later, and if all else fails, find an escape in a good book. But let go of the idea that you need to act joyful and grateful all the time. I hereby give you permission to be grumpy and frustrated without guilt.

Be an ally to your colleagues

Now that you know the cost of emotional labor, and you’ve practiced your compassion-building meditation, bring it back to work with you. If you’re a manager, find ways to let your supervisees express and manage their emotions in ways that don’t lead to burnout. Be nonjudgmental and empathetic to your colleagues who are experiencing difficult feelings. By creating a culture of supporting each other’s emotions — both positive and negative — we can make our whole workplace stronger. And that is something worth being grateful for.

Further reading:


About lorajohns

Linguist, lawyer, librarian. B.A. in linguistics from Dartmouth College. J.D. from Yale Law School.
This entry was posted in Issues in Librarianship (generally), Work/Life Balance and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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