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The Skills Agenda

Acknowledging the emotional labour of academic work

Emotional labour and care work are part of academia. They should be recognized as such.

BY LOLEEN BERDAHL & CHRISTIE SCHULTZ | APR 23 2024

Are you exhausted? If so, you are not alone. In March 2023, Nature reported on a survey of its readers in which many academics described themselves as being “burnt out.” In November 2023, Psychology Today reported on two surveys that suggest worrisome levels of exhaustion amongst U.K. academics: “academics and teachers are in the same risk group as healthcare professionals, lawyers, corporate executives, chefs, social workers and journalists. The statistics are disturbing. A shockingly high number of academics are not thriving. They are not motivated. They are not healthy.”

Exhaustion and burnout in academia can have many causes, including long hours, heavy workloads and stress. One important element that needs more recognition is the role of emotional labour. As one female professor reported in the Nature article, “There came a point where I was exhausted by the demands of my job — not just the hours or workload — but by the culture of the institution and all of the emotional labour that I was performing.” Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild introduced the concept of emotional labour in 1983. While the use of the term has evolved over time, at its core emotional labour refers to the management of feelings that is done as part of one’s paid employment. Academic work includes a fair bit of emotional labour and it is important to acknowledge this work.

This column is the first of a three-part series on academia and emotional labour, co-authored with Christie Schultz, author of Leading with Feminist Care Ethics in Higher Education and Dean of the Centre for Continuing Education (CCE) at the University of Regina. In this column, Christie and I cover how emotional labour manifests in academic work. In May’s column, we will examine how care skills can help faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students cope with the load of emotional labour. And in our third column, available in June, we will discuss what emotional labour means for academic leadership at all levels.

Understanding emotional labour and its impacts

Emotional labour is distinct from physical, intellectual and creative labour. Many professionals require considerable emotional labour; examples include education, health care, hospitality, sales and service professions. It is also present in workplaces that are not explicitly client/patient-focused. As Rose Hackman – author of Emotional Labor: The Invisible Work Shaping Our Lives and How to Claim Our Powerstates, “Emotional labour is not a bad thing. It’s a wonderful thing. It’s a thing that, ideally, everyone should be doing.”

However, several challenges with emotional labour must be acknowledged. First, emotional labour is often invisible and unrecognized work, and not calculated into employee workloads, performance metrics and reward structures. Second, emotional labour is demanding work, and is associated with negative health impacts. And third, emotional labour is unequally distributed work: a 2022 Statistics Canada study reports that one-fifth of employed Canadians work in paid care occupations, with 75 per cent of these positions held by women, while in non-care occupations, it is argued that emotional labour is performed more frequently by women and racialized employees due to gender norms and racialized stereotypes about empathy and care.

Treating emotional labour as a “given” part of academic work

Emotional labour is part of academic work. Areas of academic work that involve some degree of emotional labour include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Emotional caretaking of students related to issues of student well-being and mental health
  • Emotional caretaking of colleagues
  • Managing issues of academic integrity
  • Mentoring of students, research assistants, early career faculty and colleagues
  • Service work that involves managing distributions of resources or other contentious issues
  • Advancing equity, diversity, inclusion and decolonization work
  • Conducting research on emotionally challenging topics

One challenge of emotional labour in academic work is that most academics are untrained for it. For example, in regards to the female professor quoted earlier, Nature writes “she spent time counselling students about problems such as domestic violence and mental-health issues, despite not having training in these areas.”

Another challenge is that the associated workload is not distributed evenly. Non-academic staff in roles such as student advisors perform considerable emotional labour. Amongst faculty, research suggests that female and pre-tenure faculty conduct more emotional labour than do men and tenured faculty. Further, it is argued that diverse faculty (including women, Indigenous, racialized, 2SLGBTQIA+ and disabled faculty) face greater emotional labour expectations; as Mirjam Mueller writes, “the claim is not that white men never provide this type of labour … But, this type of labour is not expected of them.” To the extent that emotional labour by faculty is skewed raises questions about workload and equity, as this work is often unacknowledged and uncredited in traditional academic success metrics and consumes time and energy that could be devoted to academic work that is acknowledged and credited.

Emotional labour and care ethics

Given that emotional labour is an ongoing aspect of academic work, how can faculty best manage it? Can thinking about emotional labour as the work of care — understood through a lens of care ethics — help? Care ethics, drawing on feminist scholarship, centres relationships as one way to highlight the importance of relationality in decision-making and the actions we take.

This approach informs two key aspects of the work of emotional labour. First, the work of care is not uniform but is situationally and relationally complex. This is not work that can be systematized easily, if at all. Second, the work of care requires attention to care for the self at both the individual and institutional levels. By applying a care ethics lens, we can consider how academia can better acknowledge and support the emotional labour being done in universities.

In our May column, we will draw on the tools of care ethics to define how faculty can apply a care ethics lens to work involving students. In our June column, we will extend this to consider how care ethics can inform academic leadership. Through this series, we aim to increase attention to emotional labour in academia and to provide practical approaches to its management.

Continuing the Skills Agenda conversation

What types of emotional labour do you experience in your academic work? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. And for additional teaching, writing, and time management discussion, please check out my Substack blog, Academia Made Easier.

I look forward to hearing from you. Until next time, stay well, my colleagues.

ABOUT LOLEEN BERDAHL & CHRISTIE SCHULTZ
Loleen Berdahl is an award-winning university instructor, the executive director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina), and professor and former head of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Christie Schultz is the dean of the centre for continuing education and an associate professor in the faculty of education at the University of Regina.
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  1. Stephen Rader / April 24, 2024 at 14:02

    Dear Loleen and Christie,
    Thank you for bringing attention to this important issue. I am a male biochemistry professor, and I did not even know of the existence of emotional labour until a few years ago when a brilliant Historian colleague explained to me why lectures and meeting students can be so emotionally draining. For much of my career, students who came to my office hours only asked about course content, which I understand is often the experience of male profs. Recently, however, certainly since COVID, I have had increasing numbers of students coming to ask for help because of struggles in their personal lives: mental health problems (especially test anxiety — I learned this year that there are students who are so anxious they vomit every time they have an exam), challenges dealing with marginalized status, or simply being unable to keep up because they are working multiple jobs to support themselves. As you point out, I have received zero training for any of this, and nobody even knows I am doing it even if they did want to compensate or reward me somehow.
    On one level, this is just what compassionate and empathetic people do. We care about other people and we try to help them to the extent we can. But as you rightly highlight, this is also a huge working conditions issue that impacts female academics much more than male academics.
    I don’t have any good policy prescriptions, so I am hoping that your next articles in this series will provide some suggestions. Better training about the existence of emotional labour would be a great place to start.

  2. Ann Reynolds / April 24, 2024 at 17:57

    Another point to consider is how much of the emotional labour of academic is off-loaded to contingent faculty who not only have to consider their students, colleagues and the university systems but often how long and securely they will be employed.

  3. Asifa Aamir / April 25, 2024 at 12:41

    Great job Loleen & Christie, in researching and bringing forward an important conversation that affects the overall health of our institutes and all stakeholders.

    This article resonated deeply with me. As academics, we invest emotional energy in mentoring, teaching, and supporting students, colleagues, and communities. Yet, this vital work is often invisible, unrecognized, and disproportionately shouldered by women and racialized individuals. I would say that we need to have more nuanced conversations on this, and acknowledge the emotional labor that sustains our academic communities!

    It’s time to prioritize self-care, challenge gendered and racialized expectations, and create a more inclusive and supportive academic culture.

  4. Rebecca / May 15, 2024 at 18:09

    What an important and relevant article. Thank you to the authors for talking about this. I am a woman and in a visible minority, and the unacknowledged cost of emotional labour was a key part of why I ultimately chose not to pursue academia after my PhD… even though I didn’t know what to call it at the time.

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