Hidden labour

Hidden labour

Emotional labour is hardly a new concept, but surprisingly there hasn’t yet been a study of this form of work in the book industry - despite the fact that anyone who spends much time on publishing Twitter (shout out to Publishing Tea) knows that many employees struggle with overwork, underpay, and the general emotional strain of publishing work. That’s why, during my publishing MA at Oxford Brookes, I decided to focus my dissertation on this issue. It’s also why I thought it might be useful to share some of the insights I learned here, to surface the experiences of employees and to highlight the extent to which emotional labour poses a problem to the industry as a whole.

Defining the issue

The concept of emotional labour was first established by Arlie Russel Hochshild in 1983, as the labour involved in regulating your emotions at work to display the feelings required for your role, intended to cause a desired emotional response from the customer. Numerous later studies have built on this definition and expanded our understanding of emotional labour, including research on how it relates to creative industries and their particular issues such as out of hours work, networking, and isolation for underrepresented groups.

Regardless of any entry-level diversity schemes introduced by publishing houses, if BAME employees are more likely to leave the publishing industry then employee diversity will not improve

As emotional labour in publishing has not yet been explored, I first had to establish an industry-specific definition of the concept, on which to base my work. I ended up with a definition divided into three areas: emotional management of the self, such as displaying and adapting emotions; emotional management of others, primarily industry customers, colleagues, and managers; and the emotion work involved in fitting (or not fitting) into the expected image of publishing employees, which is primarily white, middle-class, and female.

This definition was then used to identify how employees experienced emotional labour, and how these experiences could differ between employees. My research was drawn from a survey of 126 employees in the book industry, working in a range of publishing houses and literary agencies across the UK. There were responses from employees working in all publishing departments and at varying levels in the industry, from intern to publisher.

Employee experiences

Overall, 97% of my survey respondents identified at least one element of emotional labour in their publishing work. In terms of emotional management of the self, 71% of respondents stated that they had to display certain emotions (primarily positivity, enthusiasm, passion, and ‘niceness’) while hiding negative emotions (stress and exhaustion), and 79% identified overwork and out of hours work as part of their emotional labour. A further 29% of respondents highlighted that their concern about job security and the need to secure promotions was a form of emotional labour,  and caused the increased need to perform other forms of emotional labour. For example, a marketing intern stated that ‘the chance for a job at the end can be held over your head to ensure that you work even harder’. Emotional labour aimed at others primarily involved working with authors (40% of respondents), colleagues (25%), and managers (30%).

Beyond this already high rate of emotional labour in the publishing industry, survey responses also displayed that there is also an additional layer of emotional labour for underrepresented employees in the industry. Nineteen respondents identified themselves as working-class, and all of these highlighted emotional labour relating to the publishing industry’s image: 53% felt that they had to ‘act middle-class’ and adapt their behaviours and emotions in order to be ‘acceptable’ to employees, and the remaining 47% who did not or could not display this image felt ‘alienated’ and ‘excluded’.

Experiences of emotional labour also differ for BAME employees (this is an imperfect term, however this kind of high-level research requires some form of broad categorisation, and I recommend that future research should focus on the individual experiences of employees from different ethnic backgrounds). 32% of BAME respondents faced the additional emotional labour involved in displaying white, middle-class behaviours and emotions, however these employees continued to face prejudice in the workplace: for example, an editorial assistant had to continue working with an author who had contacted her white colleague in order to check whether she was actually an employee. A further 37% of BAME respondents identified additional forms of emotional labour related to their race, such as educating colleagues and managers about topics relating to sensitivity and race, performing sensitivity reads, and being expected to represent an entire race and act as a ‘spokesperson for their community’. These forms of emotional labour are not required of white, middle-class employees, and are not mentioned in job adverts and descriptions: it can therefore be expected that in the industry, they go unrecognised and unpaid, and add further pressure to already high workloads.

Speaking of industry recognition of emotional labour, a further point highlighted by my survey responses was the attitudes of senior management: while eight (80%) senior management respondents recognised emotional labour, having themselves performed it, two (20%) strongly argued that it did not exist in the industry. One of these senior management respondents went further, criticising the ‘distractions of gender politics, diversity and class warfare that have entered publishing’ and stating that ‘publishing has thrived for years on being largely “white, middle class, and female”’. His view of emotional labour appears to be even more out of touch when you consider that the four other respondents from his same publishing house all struggled with emotional labour and felt exhausted by this work. It’s encouraging that other senior figures in the industry do recognise emotional labour, but the continued dismissal of the real experiences of publishing employees, particularly the experiences of employees from underrepresented backgrounds, highlights that the industry still has a way to go.

Impact on welfare and diversity

Beyond establishing publishing employee experiences of emotional labour, my dissertation aimed to identify the impact that this work had on employee welfare, job satisfaction and inclusion. Overall, this impact was negative: 81% of respondents felt negatively impacted, and of these, 43% felt burnout and 12% considered leaving the industry. Among working-class respondents who faced additional emotional labour due to their class, the negative impact rates were similar: 84% were negatively impacted, 42% burned out, 11% considering leaving the industry. The rate of impact then increased for BAME respondents. Overall, 89% identified a negative impact, 53% felt burned out, and 14% considered leaving, and of the BAME employees who experienced additional emotional labour related to their race, 100% felt negatively impacted, 64% felt burnout, and 18% discussed leaving the industry.

Emotional labour therefore has a clear impact on employee welfare, causing burnout (and, for 13% of respondents, worsening mental health), with BAME employees in particular being more likely to face these negative impacts. This also has a further impact on diversity in the industry: BAME employees are simply more likely to be driven out of the publishing industry by the strain of their work, particularly those who face this additional strain that comes from emotional labour relating to their race.

What does this mean for the publishing industry?

Regardless of any entry-level diversity schemes introduced by publishing houses, if BAME employees are more likely to leave the publishing industry then employee diversity will not improve. So what’s the solution?

 One obvious recommendation is to work to reduce overall emotional labour requirements, and to further reduce or remove the additional requirements for working-class and BAME employees. Reducing emotional labour overall in the publishing industry will improve employee welfare, and reducing additional labour relating to class and race will contribute to increasing overall diversity. As employee diversity increases, and as the publishing ‘image’ becomes less firmly white and middle-class, emotional labour relating to image could also decline, which will cause further improvements. Of course, a further step would be to pay all employees better, however this is a complex issue. I therefore suggest that where emotional labour cannot be entirely removed, but is only required for working-class or BAME employees and not their middle-class, white colleagues, it should be optional and fairly paid.

There is a lot more study needed in this subject area, to enable focused study of individual communities within the publishing industry who likely face additional emotional labour, the specific forms of emotional labour that they face, and the impact that this has. However, my dissertation clearly indicates the problem that emotional labour poses, both to employees themselves and to the industry as a whole. If we want the industry to become more relevant, representative and inclusive, then challenging the current system of emotional labour in the industry is one key step.

Sarah Shaw has recently completed a Publishing Media MA at Oxford Brookes University, and currently works as an editorial and marketing assistant at Fairlight Books. She tweets @sarahshaw98.