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To be or not to be: Emotional labour of fighting a virus


22 July 2020 08:52 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}



The current realities of grappling with COVID-19 encapsulate many an emotional challenge to society. The attempt herein is to identify the challenges and propose a philosophy of ‘emotional labour’ management to overcome or minimise the ill-effects of emotional ‘burnout’ identified. 

While the objective is not a deep dive to the theory and science of the subject matter, emotional labour, for the purpose of setting the stage, is defined as the act of regulating one’s emotions to conform to ‘organisational’ standards and expectations. 

In this process, as stated by the founder of the theory of emotional labour, Arlie Russel Hochschild, one has to suppress the felt emotions and fake unfelt emotions to live up to the required or scripted behaviour. 

This is a phenomenon in frontline or service ‘dealings’ or transactions. This calls for emotional regulation and emotional regulation calls for an effort to perform and conduct oneself, according to the socio-emotional requirements of the job. 

Regulation effort is found to have three strategies or approaches. What is known as deep acting is where you attempt or force yourself to have a mindset to genuinely feel as you are supposed to feel whilst on the other hand, surface acting is where you don’t feel or attempt to feel but fake the feelings on the surface and act. 

The third approach is genuine emotional labour or acting with genuine feeling, where you believe in the behaviour expected from you and act without effort. Research over the last 25 years has found out that deeper the acting, more the mental burnout is and lessor with surface acting. Genuine feeling does not involve burnout as there is no dissonance. 

Emotional dissonance is the disharmony or conflict of thoughts and attitudes and mindsets and the related strain, leading psychological disorders of demotivation, depression and mental dysfunction, which in turn would have a negative impact on a person’s healthy and productive life.

Emotional labour exists not only in business settings or transactions but in every social engagement or interaction, where emotions are at play. A simple illustration of emotional labour would be a judge sentencing a convict to death, irrespective of his personal thoughts of depriving a life, a healthcare giver attending to a patient diligently however physically distasteful or challenging the action might be or an airline crew member attending to a passenger pleasantly, even with his/her own mental frame being far from happy for some reason. 

Observing the job of airline crew in fact was what prompted Hochschild to think and come up with the term emotional labour. Conducting oneself socially and in a family set up as expected from a parent or child can also cause emotional labour in this context as empirically revealed.

The present fight against COVID-19 by the world has a plethora of flash points, resulting in emotional labour and let us examine each.


Medical care giver
First and foremost, let us consider the doctors, nurses and the para medics, who attend to the infected. The public health officials are virtually the cannon fodder or most at risk in this war. They are in direct contact with the infected. Exposed to infection more than all and yet they have to perform their duties diligently, professionally and hopefully with a smile and genuine kindness. 

They see death, they see suffering and they sometimes watch in despair the futility of all their efforts to save a life. But the show must go on. One can imagine the amount of mental strain and labour they undergo to keep their focus and sanity. At this point, we must offer tonnes of bouquets to our local healthcare workers or ‘health heroes’, as we witness exemplary composure and engagement from them. 

We have all seen countless video and audio clips of healthcare workers in other countries breaking down, giving up and simply going into a state of shock, seeing the death and dangers around them. The magnitude of the disaster is manyfold in the rest of the world than in Sri Lanka. However, whether it’s one death or many, witnessing a person slipping away is not pleasant to experience at all.


Law enforcement official
We witnessed an unfortunate infection spread amongst few hundred Navy personnel, who were on the road containing and controlling people’s movement and also escorting the infected to quarantine centres. One slip somewhere and it became a disaster, which luckily by now seems to be controlled. 

What must be the mental state of other colleagues of the infected, who are still on duty and had contact? They know it could happen to them too precautions apart. Even those who got infected would have known the dangers they were walking into but a task is a task and an order is an order. You got to do what you’re told to do. No choices here. 

Same goes for the Army personnel running quarantine centres and on general duty on the road, plus the countless number of Police personnel, who are doing a commendable job in ensuring sanity in the movement of people after the country opened up.


Business leader and HR professional
Here is a very interesting yet unfortunate situation. Many businesses are undergoing the threat of bankruptcy whilst others are experiencing revenue losses, making continuity as is unviable or sustainability challenging with the existing business model, especially with fixed cost bases to manage without revenue streams and limited resources. So, the cost-cutting initiatives have started. 

One of the main ‘costs’ that have been identified are the people cost. Salaries, perks, etc. can be quite significant. The modern world calls people an asset, a resource, a capital to leverage on and this is indisputable. Yet, it is a sad fact that the people cost is one of the first costs, which are looked at in the 
cost-cutting game.

Several private well-established business houses in the country were the first to venture out down this road, much to the surprise and dismay of many. The purpose of this article is not to look at the merits and demerits and ethics of those actions specifically. We also assume that this is not something these organisations wanted to do at all but had no other options. 
In that context, imagine the mindset of the chief executive or business leader or owner. The people who made his/her bed and butter have to be denied their livelihood or subjected to restricted earning, thus sending your employee through many a difficulty. One can say it’s business and it’s for the greater good of many, for business continuity and other such justifications. But the thought and action is not something a responsible business leader would savour. 

What of the HR manager? Most of these policy decisions have to be implemented by the HR division of a company. They need to action the unpleasant details. Pleasurable? Hardly. Therefore, when actioning people-related corporate survival measurers, other than the chief executive or stakeholder, it is the HR professional who goes through a serious mental burnout. 
Policy decisions with no choice or limited choices, it’s your job. Take that. Unless of course that unpleasant task is palmed off to someone else or a higher up, which doesn’t happen in professional HRM systems and which shouldn’t happen.


Employee as breadwinner
From the employer to employee, the story changes but the effect is the same. The disengaged or terminated employee, the ‘benched’ employee, the employee whose earning has been reduced by a hefty sum – in the role of father, husband, breadwinner, has to accept and live with it. The challenge of meeting living expenses, education of children and other priorities … future seems bleak. Yet, he cannot afford to breakdown. One must not breakdown. 

So, he smiles, shows a brave front to his loved ones. Dons the ‘super trooper hat’ and forges ahead. Or so he tries with questions, doubts and pressures in mind. How do I make my family survive? If that doesn’t cause emotional strain what does? So, you bite the bullet, grit your teeth and get into survival mode. 


Daily wage earner and self-employed
Spare a thought for the labourer, sweep seller, tuk driver – part of the two million plus daily wage earners in the country. During the lockdown, some of them may not have earned a dime in days. How did they survive? 

We haven’t heard of suicides in despair or violent actions ‘yet’ for survival thankfully. This would mean that emotions have been civil, regulated and social-savvy trauma apart. You would see emotional labour at its peak in this segment. So is the story of small businessmen and domestic industry owners, whose livelihood would have stopped.

I am not for a moment questioning the lockdown; it had to be done and that is why we have contained the virus. Lives over livelihoods as argue. But it has its emotional challenges, which is our focus here.


School(less) children
The signs of frustration are there now. The first few weeks were fun to stay home. Now the children miss school, their friends, helter-skelter atmosphere, sports and the chaos: all factors, which form part of a child’s mental satisfaction, are missing. They are dying to go back to school. 

On top of this, many schools have commenced online academic work. This is fine. But many children are grappling to come to terms with technology, a new system as opposed to contact or one-to-one learning and suffering from boredom and challenge of working/learning alone in the same home atmosphere sans excitement at school. The online characteristics would sink-in and the kids would adopt but it would never be like school.

Further, there is a less privileged set of children in remote or suburban areas, who do not have or cannot afford the luxury of devises for online learning. They do not get education at all. Television helps but not used in an organised manner yet. The reopening of school is not even planned wisely. 

Can the children rebel? Go to school by force? Not really. This is having negative emotional impact on children as they are forced to be domiciled and study without complaining. 


Public/consumer as human beings
People in society, whether at work or engaged in any other personal/social activity or even in the role of a consumer engaged in marketing, shopping, have to get out of their homes and move around. 

The virus could be anywhere or contactable from anyone but necessity would demand socialising and movement – a typical ‘catch 22 situation’. The fear of the unknown and the risk of uncertainty cause mental stress and duress.


Government leaders
We cannot discount the emotional toll that must be existing in the minds of the policymakers or let’s narrow it down to the Sri Lankan present context. What of the emotional burden on the president of the country first and foremost? Then the health and military hierarchy: containing the spread of the virus and death toll, rebuilding the economy, restoring normalcy, balancing and wading off political forces and adversities and managing competing priorities.

I don’t envy the position of the head of state and his team of task leaders. One decision may undo another. One miscalculation can cost lives, fighting an unseen enemy. 

Such is present times and life. In managing the realities highlighted, people are suppressing the felt emotions, faking unfelt emotions, trying to survive. Live and let live. You have no choice. Emotional labour and dissonance are at their peak. What is the way out? How do we manage and mitigate the ill-effects of these extreme emotional challenges?
I propose a six-point approach and framework.


1. Strength of purpose – educate 
The key to accepting reality and generating motivated action is the comprehension and acceptance of purpose. Human beings buy into ideas, adopt to situations and accept things that they are called to do if the purpose is acceptable. The strength of purpose is second to none. It’s the driver of human emotion, productive or disruptive. 

Therefore, whether it’s to the public or the employee, the child or the adult, health worker or the soldier, purpose and the expected end result of all our plans and actions proposed must be revealed and explained, obstacles and gains highlighted. 

It has to be a convincing road map with benefits individually and collectively. Imbed this sense of purpose in all stakeholders. Ensure that temporary costs and setbacks or suffering each one has to bear is related to short, mid and long-term gain. Be open and truthful. 

Wars are won in this manner; impossible tasks are achieved through this approach. It’s the mindset and attitude that you need to work on. Power of mind is unimaginable.


2. Safety first – not at any cost
In this game of fighting a virus that we have not got to know proper yet, the spread and propagation could happen in many ways yet unknown. Therefore, every soul engaged in the fight to contain the spread, be it medical professional, tri-forces personnel, police or people at large, must adhere to safety measures and protocols. There is absolutely no shortcut to the above. 
If you take the necessary safety measures diligently, it is proven that you will not contact the virus. Therefore, it has to be ensured that people involved in the rescue and law enforcement missions are given the peace of mind of knowing that they are adequately and appropriately protected and this will take away their emotional stress or burnout.


3. Look at opportunity not loss
We are mostly talking about the ill-effects of the pandemic and lockdown: the loss to the economy, loss to the country and the resulting impact on society. This causes more stress to the already impacted people. 

Every dark cloud has a silver lining, they say. Have we paused to ponder what we can gain out of this debacle? The resurgence or resurrection. 

For our country, a golden opportunity has come to increase domestic production, invest and expand agriculture, increase the export industries. These require labour; these will demand the creation of more jobs and there would be opportunities for entrepreneurship. A social dialogue on these lines is essential, where the people of the country are shown a national plan with their role in it. 

The daily wage earner or self-employed businessman’s losses temporarily might have to be compensated. However, we must not create dependency. Pakistan is using labour, those who lost jobs, in national replanting; Singapore Airlines’ laid-off employees are redeployed as hospital care givers. These are governmental initiatives to make use of the people’s talents. 
Have we looked at making use of able village youth labour to resurrect the barren paddy fields, instead of sending them to the Middle East and/or making them lazy tuk drivers? Time is ripe to show a path and create hope and diminish stress.


4. Treat people as assets/capital, not costs
The moment of truth has dawned. Time has come for the businesses to walk the talk – to treat people as a true resource, an asset or a form of capital. Human capital we say with pride. 
Today most are undergoing emotional toil without a job or income security. Now it’s a fact that all the businesses cannot sustain the same number of people till things turn for the better. Some businesses cannot afford to pay the same amounts, etc. Reasons can be many.

I believe if we go on the philosophy ‘our people our capital and strength’, we can live and let live. For instance, every organisation that has built up adequate reserves from profits can continue to pay the people without salary cuts. 

It is for a rainy day we say that we have cash reserves, to plough back to the business if needed or for expansion. Here we go: rains have come and continuity maters. So, plough back. There can be many mechanisms other than salary and head cuts to organisations 
with reserves. 

Too much greed is spells disaster in the long run. Alternatively, where organisations are looking at cutting down on numbers or temporary layoffs, one can adopt a minimum salary, so that jobs are retained although income is diminished. 

Instead of permanently laying off people, a suitable compensation package or alternate employment/engagement avenues can be looked at, such as the Singapore Airlines and Pakistan story. Those who ‘can’ must be asked to work without a salary or minimum salary. This is applicable to certain segments through mutual discussion and agreement with view of retaining the employment. 

Together with the government, certain specialist skilled people can be given external project assignments for certain periods. I am talking about a painstaking process, a continuous dialog, a good faith-backed action system. And why not? We go to drastic lengths to protect our capital don’t we? We leverage on and make use of our assets when in trouble in different ways. So, let’s explore.


5. Open up with strict control
The country is gradually opening up sector by sector. Health precautionary and infection preventive mechanisms and operating procedures are being drawn up. This is a good start and a necessity. 

Each sector of the country and segment of society would then understand what has to be done in getting about day-to-day, returning to normalcy and the implications of not following the protocol. This approach quells fear, uncertainty and stress.


6. Listen, counsel and care
The negatively impacted are many. The uncertainties are adding up with each day of opening up, as reality hits. On the other hand, the virus is still with us. People, whether they are patients, care givers or even law implementers, need to be listened to and counselled. 

They need sounding boards to talk of their ideas, concerns, fears and heartaches – an avenue to release their stresses. This is a vital facilitation in society, which is lacking at every level from schools to work places and as a social support mechanism as well. Listening is a major component of care and counselling. 

I believe our country has enough qualifies counsellors and psychologists, yet we don’t seem to be making use of them effectively for social development and organisational building. Psychology-related interventions are wrongfully interpreted as mental issues and seen as taboo in our country. This stigma has to be eliminated. 

Counselling and psychological intervention or mind management, facilitating mindfulness, are essential in tackling trauma and stress. Therefore, we must introduce these facilities in the health sector, law enforcement sector and at every plausible contact point for people engagement, for the good of society, not only to fight COVID.


Sustainable mechanism
The above six approaches must go hand in hand, not in isolation. Then only they will have their desired impact. Further, the implementation must have state patronage at the highest priority levels, to ensure implementation and managed by suitable professionals for sustainability and continuous improvement. 

After all, emotions distinguish humans from animals as a primary factor. Thus, emotion management becomes a primary tool in ensuring the wellness of society and a country.

(Pradeepa Kekulawala is a senior corporate management professional specialised in general management and human resource development. He is an industry thought leader on topical organisational and societal concerns. He is Immediate Past President of Association of HR Professional – Sri Lanka and currently serves in the senior management team of the national carrier. Thoughts expressed herein are strictly personal)

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