Emotional labour in the post-pandemic academy

Liz Morrish

I have been reading a lot about emotional labour in higher education recently. It’s a topic I addressed in a recent HEPI blog in June of this year. In it I referred to an article by Lizzie Nixon and Robert Scullion which identifies the marketised university as an ‘emotional arena’ in which:

a charged relationship has developed between the anxious student navigating an uncertain future and the all-too-responsible lecturer as customer service provider. In turn, managing student anxiety has multiplied the emotional toll on the lecturer. We can imagine how much this has intensified over the past year and in circumstances in which students, quite understandably, have felt disoriented and alone.

As the disruption from the pandemic has continued, the consequences for universities have multiplied. The cohort entering higher education in 2021 will have had little experience of assessment by examination, leading to further anxiety and need for reassurance. This means an escalation of emotional labour from academics, and traditionally this has fallen on women, particularly working class women and women of colour, even as the need to nurture and supervise children and dependents have expanded during the pandemic.

I have also been reading Peter Fleming’s excellent book Dark Academia: How Universities Die. He notes that in the kind of authoritarian ‘watching’ institution that many universities have become, those subject to power feel more and more powerless. In response to this, they may acquire ‘boss syndrome’ which he defines thus: “In psychotherapeutic terms, the victim seeks to control their humiliation by absorbing the role of the humiliator themselves.”

A fascinating and insightful article on precisely this phenomenon appeared in The Nation by Alexis Grenell. An aide close to Andrew Cuomo described navigating the abusive and bullying working environment around the disgraced former New York Governor. “But for me, it never really bothered me. It was part of the deal.” Grenell asks, ‘Why don’t men speak up when women are being harassed right in front of them? Why is it always on women in the most vulnerable position to take all the risk?’ It seems the answer lies in this insight ‘feigned nonchalance offers some insight into Cuomo’s specific form of predation on men, which required them to disavow their own victimhood and, more broadly, buy into the notion that men cannot be harmed’. This is the emotional labour of denying a threatening reality.

There is extensive research into the emotional labour claimed by academic leaders. However, what compliance with a workplace culture of denial buys them, is a kind of emotional firewall around the more demanding aspects of managing staff. An example which will be familiar to many academics is the process of applying for promotion or contract renewal. In compiling these lengthy and detailed portfolios, they are expected to present the self in a carefully curated way. The necessity of erasing any of the hardships that might have impeded their achievements will, in itself, entail anxiety and emotional labour. Agnes Bosanquet recounts her own experience in a powerful blog:

In my academic biography and promotion application, I am measured in words and numbers. I have no corporeality. I summarise myself in dot points. I divide myself into headings.

In a longer form article Bosanquet writes about the information she knows she must exclude from her application for promotion under the section ‘Relevant Personal Circumstances’, designed to mitigate otherwise excessive expectations and unfair comparisons with those unencumbered by responsibilities and taxing life events. Her response made reference to the fact she had a fractional appointment of which 20% of her workload was for research – almost an apology for what is, in fact, two decades of exemplary scholarship. “A full account would include details of little interest to a promotions committee: a life-threatening birth, a daughter with epilepsy, a too-slow PhD, a grandmother bringing a baby for breastfeeds between lectures, a relationship on the brink, a teaching-focussed appointment, secondary infertility, a ruptured ectopic pregnancy, an implanted neurostimulator to manage debilitating nerve pain, eight years as a part-time academic, a miracle baby, a university restructure, a relationship on the brink again, a daughter on the cusp of puberty with severe epilepsy unable to attend school for eight months, another university restructure, a pandemic … ”At this point I paused not only in admiration, but to contemplate the inhumanity of any system that discourages mention of corporeal life itself, since the neoliberal academic must always be dashboard-able and willing to ablate the urgent calls of body, family and emotion – of the very self who is offered in servitude to the institution.

It is no surprise to find that the expectation of emotional labour follows women into positions of academic leadership. But the fact that academics expunge their complicating life details before submitting to workplace scrutiny must alleviate the impact of staff members’ misfortunes on managers’ emotions. There is also a tacit understanding that rank and file staff are not permitted to express any other affect but ‘toxic positivity’ at work. This can be defined as the belief that no matter what adversities are encountered, the individual must maintain a positive demeanour. In so doing, they bestow their emotional largesse on their managers. If they refuse, stark consequences can arise. One colleague reports being invited to a weekly ‘virtual staffroom’ which was designed to mitigate isolation and provide support. This was a welcome gesture, but one instruction rankled: ‘bring your best smile’. So, while the manager appeared to offer supportive emotional labour, they were seeking to diminish its impact by proscribing expression of anguish in a time of pandemic death and grief. When my colleague questioned this directive, she received a sharp rebuke. It seems emotional labour upwards must be performed publicly and in highly-constrained ways, preferably in forms coded as public affirmation of the manager’s benevolence.

It might be helpful to draw on Goffman’s concept of face in a final word on this. While managerial prerogative demands protection of their positive and negative face, such consideration is often not extended to academics. One colleague returning to the workplace recounts that hot-desking has now been imposed without consultation. It may be because ‘new ways of working’ lead to increased efficiency, but it is read as just another incursion on academic culture and a calculated attempt to instil a sense of insecurity among staff. Emotional labour sometimes seems to work via cynical manipulation of ‘theory of mind’ in order to signal power and demoralize staff.

The Hort et al. article on women managers’ emotional labour is a reflective piece which includes an admission that even their power and credibility is fragile. It is testament to the fact that many managers are sincere in their intentions to support staff, but my argument here is that, too often, others are willing to sacrifice academics’ sense of worth when coercive and non-consensual patterns of management are modelled higher up within an institution.

The post-pandemic academy will be staffed and managed by people who are exhausted and emotionally drained. If we don’t want universities to be full of victims and victimisers, it is time for an audit of emotional labour and to ensure this is reciprocal and focussed on the needs, feelings and intentions of all involved in the very human chains of relations that are inherent to higher education contexts. 

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

1 comment

  1. I recently took a job that does not involve students in my University and it was 100% better – not becausee the students aren’t lovely but you move out of what the “do you want fries with that?” mind-set that now is all over the front lines of UK Universities and a whole range of metrics (TEF, REF etc) no longer exist to you.


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