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Weight Watchers and 'emotional labor'

CEO of Weight Watchers David Kirchhoff visits Extra at The Grove on February 25, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Noel Vasquez/Getty Images for Extra)
CEO of Weight Watchers David Kirchhoff visits Extra at The Grove on February 25, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.

Yet another large company is facing a potential low-wage worker mutiny: Weight Watchers. According to a Tuesday New York Times report from labor reporter Steven Greenhouse, workers at the leading weight loss company have "have inundated an internal company Web site with complaints about poor wages and being pressured to work many hours unpaid."

“They know my love for the program, but I can’t say we’re treated right,” Weight Watchers employee Tammy Williams told Greenhouse. “We are professionals, we have to dress nice, but we are paid less than kids who work at McDonald’s.”

Williams is a professional Weight Watchers "leader"—a former customer who has successfully lost weight on the program and now guides new customers through the weight loss process. An official leader recruitment page promises applicants "personal satisfaction in helping others" and "flexible hours ... compensation and benefits."

Weight Watchers' strategy of cultivating loyalty among employees and identifying them as "leaders" is far from unique. Many jobs—particularly low-wage service sector jobs, staffed predominantly with women—have similar approaches to labor management. This is an element of what sociologists call "emotional labor": this sort of labor encompasses not just the work that goes into demonstrating a particular feeling in front of customers, but also the ways in which managers will try to condition a particular emotional state into their employees.

To accomplish that goal, employers might change worker job titles to reflect a particular workplace philosophy. This may be the reason why Weight Watchers employees are known as "leaders," and Walmart employees are called "associates." The fast food outlet Subway calls its workers "sandwich artists."

These job titles all suggest some mutual ownership in a collective endeavor, de-emphasizing the power relations implicit in the words "worker" or "employee."  Some managers use even less subtle means of enforcing workplace camaraderie. The chief executive of sandwich chain Pret A Manger tracks how often his employees physically touch each other as a sign of affection. Weight Watchers, on the other hand, selects its "leaders" from a pool of satisfied former customers—people who are already guaranteed to feel strong brand loyalty and identification.

Of course there's nothing wrong with loving your job, but employers can sometimes foster or enforce those feelings in order to get away with low pay. According to one study in the Journal of Applied Psychology, "occupations low in cognitive demands evidence a wage penalty with increasing emotional labor demands." The study lists many low-wage service jobs, such as waiting tables or working as a cashier, among those jobs which are low in cognitive demands.

Weight Watchers leader Teri Weatherby seems to refer to this dynamic when she tells Greenhouse, “Other than the financial problems, it’s probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. That’s what they prey upon. It’s like an abusive relationship. You know you should leave, but you stay because you love it.”

Another significant attribute of these jobs, as pointed out by Sarah Jaffe in In These Times, is that they are inhabited predominantly by women. This is certainly true of Weight Watchers—and 72% of the hourly wage-earning "associates" at Walmart are women.