Never Switching Off: The Invisible & Emotional Labour of Agency Life

Do you like sleep? I really, really do. But sometimes in agency life sleep is a commodity that is in short supply. The workday bleeds into “off hours” and there is little time to “switch off”. In the agency world working on clients in off hours is often normal and expected. The division between work and life fades away and suddenly weekend emails and calls are the norm. Work/life balance becomes work, with a side of off-work life.

Have you ever felt like that?

At my agency the expectation is that you are incredibly responsive to client inquiries, no matter what. Combine that with completing your “billable hours” and you have a recipe for unending client service. This is both a good, and very bad, thing.

To make matters more complicated I work with my spouse… so we work together all day and come home and talk about work… all night. Sure, we strategize for clients and have all sorts of “productive” discussions but that means that we’re rarely “off work”.

The absence of disconnection means that at any moment we must switch into “work mode” and handle general queries, website issues, or reputation management crises. 7pm, out at dinner at a restaurant and a client gets a bad Google review… phones start flashing. It’s nearly unavoidable… somebody is going to have to respond.

And, to make matters more complicated it becomes normalized to be heavily invested in the success of clients such that the emotional labour, the invisible work, that transcends the limits of the paid job.

Ultimately, I’m interested in what effect this has. When the expectation is that us workers are never unreachable, what part of our time is not for sale? Sleeping hours? From 5:45-6am? Never?

“When their work is erased, the workers themselves are
sometimes rendered invisible as well.”

Introduction: Conceptualizing Invisible Labor
Winifred R. Poster, Marion Crain, and Miriam A. Cherry

Invisible Labour

Some roles in agency life, apart from others, are premised on invisible labour. Although invisible labour is often talked about with reference to the work that women do in the home, in an agency setting it is determined by the requirements of the position rather than gender. My attention follows the influential work of Arlie Hochschild on the invisible labour that occurs within paid employment.

Poster et al suggest that Hochschild’s work, “uncovered how emotions
become commodities for employers in the service economy, who compel workers to undergo ‘feeling management’ to present genuine care
for their clienteles (Hochschild 1983, as qtd in Poster et el 2016:4).

This concept resonates for me. The harnessing and commoditization of genuine care is the way agency life feels. But, let me add some complexity to this. There is a constant tension in my agency context over who “owns” the relationship with the client. So, the underlying sentiment is always, get close, but not too close or someone will get their nose out of joint and feel excluded. Can you imagine how hard it is to negotiate the external demands of a client relationship with the internal politics of “hey, that’s mine!”? It’s challenging; not impossible, but is definitely enough to become daunting. Especially coupled with the invisibility and emotional commitment required when we need to stay engaged around the clock.

With the commitment to devote emotional labour to clients, what’s left for a home life? Let me tell you, sometimes there’s not much. I have to wonder about the nature of the “new work” and knowledge economy when invisible and emotional labour remains uncompensated, yet expected, and considered a naturalized part of agency life. It makes the work/life balance seem rather farcical and a lie we tell ourselves to sleep better… when we CAN sleep.

What do you think? Have you ever had an experience like this?

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