The hidden impact of emotional labour in the gig economy

Gig work, already rife with financial uncertainty, is being further undermined by the pressure on workers to suppress their feelings, say Andrew and Nada Kakabadse

According to the Office for National Statistics, 90 per cent of the UK labour force is now employed in the service economy, and 4.7 million of this number were gig workers in 2019. 

The majority of gig workers provide courier, transport and food delivery services, often working as freelancers across a wide range of online platforms, including Uber, Deliveroo and PeoplePerHour. 

As a result, the proportion of workers in jobs requiring a high level of emotional labour – shorthand for when someone feels the need to suppress their own emotions – has steadily increased, particularly in the service gig economy.

Although emotional labour is accepted as a natural element of service work, the use of monitoring technology and rating systems make the need for such effort a much more visible and integral component of gig work.

Many jobs now require workers to suppress their true emotions, often by adopting an attitude of permanent and positive joyfulness, embodied by smiling, total unflappability or polite subservience, even when someone is confronted by rude or aggressive clients. 

Smiling in western cultures is considered a familiar and reflexive gesture of goodwill. A smile enables social interaction and helps others feel comfortable and at ease. 

By contrast, Russia actively disincentivises smiling in a professional capacity because it is generally assumed a worker is already ‘on message’ due to their lower social distance. Smiling can also be misconstrued as shallow, unprofessional or lacking in commitment. 

And in general, the Chinese do not smile at strangers, irrespective of whether they are foreign or domestic. Similarly, in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, females do not smile at males as this could be viewed as flirting.

Managing, faking, suppressing feelings and maintaining relationships with clients are often familiar demands of gig work, which already comes with inherent pressures of insecure employment.

To make matters worse, depending on your position within an organisation, monitoring systems and apps now allow employers and customers to rate service workers’ behaviour in excruciating detail as gig economy platforms embed emotional labour into work-feedback mechanisms.

These regulate social interaction between workers and consumers. For example, the rating systems used by Uber, Taskrabbit and Deliveroo allow customers to penalise gig workers for not displaying the ‘right’ demeanour.

Uber drivers can lose their job if ratings fall too low. To remain active on the system, they must meet an average target of around 4.6 out of 5 stars. Furthermore, the Uber driver performs emotional labour for ratings instead of tips. As with other gig professions this takes a toll on individuals’ physical health and mental wellbeing.

In one sense there’s nothing new here. Metrics that measure ‘reputation’ and quality of work have been around for a long time. ‘Click-work’ platforms such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk – where workers’ performance in digital-based micro-tasks contributing to a broader project they never see fully completed – allows ‘hirers’ to review the number of completed tasks and an ‘approval’ rate. 

An approval metric is an implicit proxy for a worker’s reputation, quality of work and trustworthiness, impacting their status and influencing a client’s hiring decision. 

In other scenarios, ‘gamified’ practices are used to stimulate extended productivity. Platforms like Upwork engage graphic designers, translators and other freelancers, using ‘gamified’ incentives to foster a worker’s personal bests as a method of stimulation and reward. 

Platform hierarchy is also a proxy for the socioeconomic status of its workers. In the words of one of our ongoing study participants: “I am limited to rules set by Uber, and when they have an excess of drivers, they use their right to cancel you.”

It is well known that workers in jobs demanding high emotional labour are at high risk of anxiety and burnout. These factors have real impacts on lives. Having to smile all day, gig workers arrive home exhausted and emotionally drained. 

Of course, being forced to project ever-increasing levels of enthusiasm at work while jobs become more competitive and financially demanding adds additional levels of stress. The demand to sustain ratings takes an inevitable toll on mental and physical wellbeing. 

Risks and high levels of income uncertainty for gig work adds evermore stress. As one study participant commented: “I was a freelance journalist who desperately needed to work. The pay was per story, so there was no contract. You are freelance, and you sell your story. If they like your idea, they run with it. It helps if you are on-trend.

“There is no way you can know whether they will appreciate your story. That uncertainty is emotionally taxing. Eventually, I gave it up and became an Uber driver. That was more predictable, but then Covid-19 came along.”

According to Public Health England, 70.9 million prescriptions for antidepressants were given out in 2018, compared with 36 million in 2008. 

Increased financial uncertainty, poor work conditions and employment pressures have direct links to anxiety and depression. Huge numbers of people are being forced to take on casual and insecure platform work, sometimes in addition to other jobs. 

When gig workers are denied normal workplace rights and treated as disposable labour, all while having to project a façade of ‘all is well’ then this becomes an issue that can no longer remain hidden. We are finding ourselves regressing to mid-19th-century Victorian England, but this time with a compulsory smile being ruthlessly enforced by faceless technology.

Andrew Kakabadse is professor of governance and leadership, and Nada Kakabadse is professor of policy, governance and ethics, both at Henley Business School