By Ciera Graham / Herald columnist
I remember when I heard about the death of “Sonny” Quitlong of Seattle; he was a 70-year-old grocery store worker who died of COVID-19.
Quitlong wasn’t just another frontline worker who risked their life in order to serve the needs of the public. He was also an employee located at a store in my childhood neighborhood. This store was more than just a space to buy merchandise, it became a hub for community members and family members, especially people of color, to cultivate relationships, and discuss the latest neighborhood news. I remember accompanying my mom at a young age, and hearing her engage in conversations with grocery store cashiers about everything from family life, politics and their favorite recipes. As a child, I saw grocery store clerks as superhuman: They would stand on their feet for long hours, and handle a high volume of a customers in a short period of time. Most importantly, they would do it with a smile; their friendliness was almost automatic. I often wondered if they too, felt sad, stressed or angry.
COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on our economy and our daily interactions. Many of us have had our work and family lives disrupted. We have had to find creative ways to integrate caregiving and home schooling into our traditional work days. The common sentiment we’re all expressing is mental and emotional exhaustion, and even social isolation.
For those of us who have been able to preserve our jobs and work remotely, we’ve been able to lessen the potential risk of exposure to the virus. It’s been a different reality for our frontline workers. Those on the front lines have found themselves serving a critical role in meeting our basic needs; and keeping our economy afloat. They have had to preform their jobs, often working longer and unusual hours. Frontline employees are found in a variety of industries, including food service, infrastructure and transportation. These are individuals that many of us depend: bus drivers, cashiers, sanitation workers, medical professionals and more. While some of us may recognize the value of their physical labor, the emotional labor they expend is rarely discussed or acknowledged.
Sociologist Arlie Hochschild explains that emotional labor involves the work of managing your emotions in your career because your job demands it of you. For example, a grocery store clerk may remain calm and friendly even in the presence of verbal abuse from a customer. Similarly, emotional labor also forces employees who have traumatic or stressful home lives to appear unaffected and warm while at work. This performative display is done to ensure their persona and disposition is in line or congruent with the company or organization.
Learning to manage one’s own feelings in public-facing positions creates emotional dissonance, where employees disconnect themselves from their real feelings, and emotions. This pressure to display positive emotions forces employees to engage in “surface acting,” which can lead to stress, anxiety and burnout. Their work is more than just providing excellent customer service and ensuring customers return, it involves distorting their own emotions to conform to workplace expectations of an appropriate and conventional emotional performance.
The outbreak of the coronavirus is something none of us predicted; fear and anxiety around the future progression of this virus can be overwhelming and debilitating. Many people are also expressing fear around financial instability, job insecurity, as well as the future of public education. Many of our frontline workers are unable to opt out of interpersonal interactions in their roles or even seek respite while at work from the compounded trauma of COVID-19, as well as the trauma and stress from their private and public lives. Emotional labor often goes unacknowledged, it is rarely honored, and never seen as a contributing source to on the job stress. Emotional stress is exacerbated when employers don’t realize the personal cost of maintaining a specific emotional performance, which only contributes to low employee morale.
We’re constantly told to take care of ourselves in the midst of COVID-19, but we often fail to realize that self-care requires time and financial investment. Workers deemed “essential” are disproportionately women and people of color, and these employees are more likely to live below the federal poverty line or hover just above it. Essential employees who live below the poverty line also experience difficulties in getting access to quality mental health care. Essential employees living in rural areas also have to travel greater distances to access care. When one experiences multiple stressors with very few outlets to express their emotions, it only exacerbates their need for care. Employers — especially those in the public sector — should be facilitating healthy conversations about mental health, emotional expression and healthy coping mechanisms.
The persistent emotional labor coupled with the lack of protections offered to our essential frontline employees only serves to render them invisible. As many of us depend on their labor for the sustenance of our economy, we need to recognize the intense emotional labor these employees have to manage during a time of extreme emotional anxiety.
While essential employees have been our saviors through the unpredictability of this pandemic, I hope we also take some time to humanize their experience, and recognize the toll of their labor, physical and emotional. Many of them are handling hundreds of customers a day, working long hours, risking their own health and doing it all with a smile. Behind the smile lies the complexity of their public and private life, a private life that is often filled with lots of chaos, confusion and inequities.
While they are superheroes to many of us, they are still human with very complex lives.
Follow Herald columnist Ciera Graham on Twitter @CieraGrahamPhD.