Shouldering unseen weight: Why emotional labour matters for leading missions and how to deal with it

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By Ryan Bellinson

Organising team meetings is one of the tasks I dreaded most in my job. It’s not complicated or particularly difficult. However, it requires me to do a thing that isn’t assigned to anyone, meaning it will get forgotten unless someone takes responsibility for it, and I need to remember the myriad of unspoken rules to accommodate others — for example Lydia needs at least 10 minutes between meetings, Craig won’t accept a meeting invite without seeing a detailed agenda, etc. Whilst scheduling team meetings is a minor undertaking, I do it on top of many more strenuous, stressful activities within my day-to-day work which means it’s really work to have patience for this small but necessary task.

The concept of emotional labour was coined by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book, The Managed Heart. Through her research exploring airline flight attendant’s service delivery work, Hochschild was enamoured that the flight attendants were trained to ‘put on a smile’ and express fake displays of happiness, regardless of how they actually felt. Hochschild’s analysis reached an important finding that workers labour has evolved to include their emotions and physical reactions to please others as a core component of their wage.

Put simply, emotional labour can be understood as ‘the unpaid, invisible work we do to keep those around us happy.’ The field of public administration has increasingly begun examining how civil servants experience emotional labour within their work, particularly those in frontline service delivery and leadership roles.

During a conversation with Mission-Oriented Innovation Network (MOIN)’s Cities Community of Practice (CoP) members, the group recognised their shared experience of shouldering emotional labour within their work and wanted to discuss the topic in greater depth. In January 2024, we hosted that conversation and were joined by Professor of Public Administration Sara Rinfret, who is an expert in the field of emotional labour. Although emotional labour is rarely discussed by civil servants, it’s something many public sector leaders experience and certainly is felt by those leading missions within their organisations.

What does emotional labour look like in the work of leading a mission?

Mission leaders are uniquely positioned to be agents of transformative change within their organisations — helping to propel bold, innovative agendas forward — but must bring their colleagues and stakeholders along into that journey. The reality of this work means mission leaders must be clever, creative policymakers (public entrepreneurs) to create and exploit opportunities for the mission but also must have strong interpersonal skills to motivate and care for staff and be attuned to the needs of partners. The range of duties a mission lead must perform can be taxing and demands emotive competency.

Emotional labour is something that can surface for mission leaders through a range of activities. From the mundane, everyday tasks to the more intensive, abnormal events, emotional labour can emerge from a variety of places. During the session, we especially explored the ways in diversity, equity and inclusion themes overlap with emotional labour but examined a myriad ways emotional labour manifests through the work of leading a mission:

How can public sector leaders cope with emotional labour?

It’s crucial for public sector leaders to acknowledge and address the challenges of emotional labour head on. Civil servants can often feel an inclination to bury the angst and uneasiness associated with emotional labour. Showing negative or uncomfortable emotions has historically been taboo and civil servants leading missions often lack the necessary skills to deal with the emotive crises their work can produce. Talking about these challenges and proactively seeking out solutions is vital for the wellbeing of civil servants working on missions and integral for their long-term resilience to lead this work.

One coping strategy the group discussed was to reframe emotional labour as a transformative topic, making the emotional travails of leading a mission a meaning-making experience. The group noted that when emotional labour does receive explicit consideration, its typically as a tokenistic talking point that quickly gets brushed aside. However, there’s a significant opportunity to recognise emotional labour as a symptom of ‘the system’ a mission seeks to transform exerting resistance, pushing back against the ambitious change that’s being worked towards. While this strategy would not reduce emotional labour, it does create an opportunity for civil servants to experience it in a new emancipatory way, positioning emotional labour as an expressive signal of hard-fought change.

The group also explored a number of specific, practical strategies to cope with emotional labour:

Developing the capabilities needed to recognise and support emotional labour is a critical aspect involved with leading a mission. Whilst a growing number of public sector organisations appreciate the importance of emotional labour, far fewer are substantively recognising it. For civil servants leading missions, we hope this conversation can serve as an invitation to consider emotional labour with sincerity and begin exploring how your organisations can work to support staff shouldering it in the shadows.

You can learn more about the Mission Oriented Innovation Network if you are interested in how we are supporting the global community of public sector organisations experimenting with mission-oriented innovation.

You can learn more about our work with local governments through our Cities Programme.

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UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose
UCL IIPP Blog

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