Anyone working in the “neoliberal academy” will be all too familiar with the increasing emotionalisation of work. From peer review and National Student Survey scores to fierce competition for permanent contracts and funding, it is hardly surprising that feelings of guilt, shame, anger and happiness circulate in the academic workplace just as they do elsewhere.
Emancipation through Emotion Regulation at Work aims to understand these four emotions and, specifically, how workers might better regulate them to “see through” and resist the repressive social conditions of the modern workplace. Dirk Lindebaum’s study draws on critical theory and psychological studies of emotion regulation to offer strategies for regulating emotion at work. These involve workers aiming for physical or psychological distance – particularly in cases of shame and guilt – so that they can feel as though circumstances no longer affect them and negative emotions can be reappraised to engender transformative action. A largely theoretical text, the book also offers four descriptive vignettes, corresponding to guilt, shame, anger and happiness, as part of the analysis.
Lindebaum’s aims are noble and important at a time when issues of well-being and mental health in a changing labour market are being closely scrutinised. But by focusing on personal strategies to regulate and transform the way that we feel, his book reinforces the individualised culture of self-management and self-responsibility that exacerbates the precarious emotionality of working life. It would have been interesting to consider the social and cultural origins of the four emotions, rather than accepting them as existing independently of broader social positions and values. Although vignettes are employed to do this work in weaving theoretical themes through rich contextual biographies, Lindebaum avoids discussing the wider structures of gender, age, class and ethnicity.
Moreover, it is not clear how these vignettes were developed. John (shame) is presented as a research participant, whereas Jennifer (guilt), Maria (happiness) and Thomas (anger) appear to have been constructed out of unspecified questionnaire data and newspaper reports. Despite the even gender split, there is no reflection on how emotions are experienced differently in the workplace by different people, such as women, carers, migrants and both younger and ageing workers, who are often concentrated in part-time, service and care roles that demand particular kinds of emotional labour.
These blind spots are challenging precisely because the social, moral and relational dimensions of emotions are frequently acknowledged. It is frustrating that these issues are not fully explored, despite references to the interrelationship of power and emotion. Instead, Lindebaum presents emotions’ existence in the workplace as straightforward facts, and it is how they function and are regulated that is the main point of investigation. While the goal of emancipation is a central tenet of critical theory, focusing on workers’ own self-management of emotion takes the debate only so far. This study falls short of a fully multifaceted analysis of how emotions circulate in different kinds of organisations and workplaces, along other axes of difference and in relation to wider worker identities.
Kirsty Finn is lecturer in higher education, Lancaster University.
Emancipation through Emotion Regulation at Work
By Dirk Lindebaum
Edward Elgar, 160pp, £60.00
Published 31 May 2017