I’ve been thinking lately about the emotional labor involved in library work. Library workers do a lot of heavy lifting in the emotional labor department. It’s a crucial expectation in libraries. In fact, keeping a positive customer experience is considered integral to the job. According to the OCLC and IMLS’ Competency Index for the Library Field (2014) a librarian “[t]reats users in a welcoming, professional manner and provides other staff with an example of positive customer service” as one of its core customer service competencies.

I recently read an interesting article in The Student Research Journal by Kelsey Simon of Valdosta State University. It’s called “Emotional Labor, Stressors, and Librarians Who Work with the Public University.” Simon points out that emotional labor can be a source of stress, but distinguishes between stress levels found in surface acting, where a library worker must fake their emotional response, leading to emotional exhaustion and burnout. and deep acting, which involves moving the interior emotional state to align with the positivity of the interaction. Studies of emotional labor have found deep acting to be far less harmful than surface acting.

Simon’s paper reaches an interesting conclusion surrounding social sharing of negative interactions. Organizations with high levels of emotional labor have found that workers experience better results when they can share and commiserate about the hardships of negative customer interactions.

Places like banks and retail stores are designed to have a “frontstage” and a “backstage”. In the “frontstage” area, workers must act and be prepared to fulfill the organizational culture with regards to service transactions and expected emotional displays, which often means the heavy use of emotional labor. The “backstage” area is where workers can go afterwards to drop this facade, and socially share, or “vent” about poor customer interactions.

(Simon, 6)

What McCance, et al. (2013) found was that social sharing gave those using emotional labor in their research a way to feel relieved after distressing interactions. They suggested that a socially accepting space must first be created so that sharing can occur without fear. A workplace where one might be judged for social sharing would not help with the stress caused from emotional labor but could even increase it. However, should a socially acceptable place and culture be created, their research showed that workers felt better after venting about the interactions they had and went into their next session of emotional labor use harboring fewer negative emotions.

(Simon, 6)

Focusing in on social sharing is interesting to me. It’s the sort of thing that could feasibly be done in libraries with very little funding. A key component is building a culture where social sharing is encouraged and accepted. That would be a much more difficult task than simply creating a “backstage” area for the social sharing to take place.

Cultural change is always tricky. I think that social sharing in some cases goes against the natural grain of the library field, which focuses so strongly on being pleasant and welcoming. It’s difficult for library workers to know exactly where to draw the line, and then summon the strength to stand up for themselves and stop the interaction when it becomes abusive or violent. This is particularly important in the public library field. But beyond stopping problematic interactions, there needs to be space for workers to “decompress” after the interactions. And that means that library supervisors and managers should encourage sharing and support, rather than worrying that the process is “too negative.”

There needs to be a deliberate approach to re-thinking our customer service patterns in libraries. I think we can glean some valuable practices from the retail world while retaining the distinctive “flavor” of libraries. It’s going to take a lot of support from management, and a conscious effort on the part of workers to break old habits. But the upside is tremendous: a happier, healthier workplace where the emotional labor of the job is seen and recognized.