Emotional styling: How can hairdressers help?

By Stacey Mary Page (The University of Adelaide) and Hannah McCann (The University of Melbourne)

The emotional aspects of salon work encompass many factors that can be understood as emotional labour. Not only do hair and beauty workers require technical skills, but research also suggests that they can often play an informal caregiving role and provide social support for clients. The emotional content of client disclosures requires workers to navigate client emotions while simultaneously controlling their own emotions, expressions and responses. We have each conducted research on the relationship between salon workers and their clients to look further into these issues.

Photo of hairdressers, 2020, Unsplash

Emotional disclosures

In 2019, Stacey Mary Page conducted a study into the types of client disclosures that hairdressers hear on a regular basis, using participant-led interviews with hairdressers from Adelaide. Page found that the intimacy of the salon often allows salon worker-client interactions to develop into conversations about emotional, and sometimes distressing, content. Clients feel comfortable discussing intimate details about their lives with their hairdresser, information they may not even tell their family or friends. People seek informal support more so than they seek formal support, and hairdressers often report feeling like they are makeshift counsellors.

Specifically, hairdressers identified that disclosures often include clients talking about family, ranging from topics of divorce, the affairs that clients or their partners have had, sexual abuse, child abuse, to domestic and family violence. Clients also often disclose mental health concerns, around experiencing anxiety, depression, daily stress and even discussions of suicide. Clients also talk about their personal Identity including disclosures about aging, religious and political views, experiencing homelessness, being part of the LGBTQIA+ community and struggling financially.

Topics around physical health were also common, with clients telling hairdressers about their prescribed medication, using and abusing drugs and alcohol, describing explicit details about their sex life, conversations about having cancer and dealing with death. Discussions about women’s health included talking about menstruation and menopause, views on abortion, experiencing loss through miscarriage and the journey of pregnancy.

Page found that hairdressers respond to disclosures by listening and monitoring both their own and clients body language, treating clients like family or friends, maintaining confidentiality of disclosures and remaining client focused. Many hairdressers provide advice, yet are often cautious, and some also refer clients on to formal support. Hairdressers are affectionate with clients, but can sometimes blur their professional role boundaries, which can lead to safety issues and repercussions for both client and hairdresser.

Clients may benefit from venting and feeling supported and listened to in the salon context, however, the effect of this on salon workers can be detrimental to their wellbeing. Since salon workers are not systematically trained in their role to support clients socially and emotionally, then they may be at risk of emotional burnout from both the burden of responsibility they feel and the process of emotional repression and expression that characterises emotional labour.

Hairdressers expressed they felt emotionally drained and undervalued in their role, stating “there is more involved in hairdressing than just the hair service”. Hairdressers said that they love their job, however, they need and want support around managing the emotional aspects of their job. The lack of training and support has serious implications, because without appropriate support, salon workers may experience a decline in their physical and mental wellbeing.

Training and Support for Workers

Due to the nature of the emotional relationships that may be forged between salon workers and clients, salons provide a space through which to connect support services to hard-to-reach communities. With growing awareness of this unique relationship over recent years, programs have emerged across the world which aim to train and utilise salon workers around issues like family violence.

In 2018 Hannah McCann conducted research into one such program – called ‘HaiR-3Rs’ – run by the Eastern Domestic Violence Service (EDVOS) in Victoria. The aim of the program is to teach salon workers to ‘Recognise’ the signs, ‘Respond’ to, and ‘Refer’ clients on to support services for family violence. Drawing on interviews with workers who had completed the training, the goal of the study was to investigate whether training helped workers navigate emotional labour in the salon or whether it added an additional burden/expectation.

Photo of hairdressers, 2020, Unsplash

Workers overwhelmingly reported that they felt the training helped alleviate their felt sense of burden, given that client disclosures often put them in a position of having to respond without necessarily knowing what to say or do. Salon workers expressed the feeling that responding to difficult disclosures, like issues of family violence, was part and parcel of their job, The EDVOS training provided a pathway for trainees to know how to appropriately refer clients on to rather than taking on client issues as their own to manage.

Workers noted that they had never received formal training related to emotional issues in the salon prior to the EDVOS training, and many expressed a desire to have someone to talk to/debrief with about these kinds of issues. Like the hairdressers in Page’s study, the salon workers interviewed all indicated that salon work involves a high degree of emotional labour and that clients disclose a huge array of issues beyond family violence. The results of this study suggest that while the HaiR-3Rs training is incredibly helpful, it is also just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the kind of support and training that could be implemented in the hair and beauty sector.

What next?

These studies suggest that not only is the salon a space of emotional labour, but that salon workers currently lack the widespread training and support to be able to effectively do this work without risk of ‘burnout’. While it is beyond the remit of services like EDVOS to train on issues other than family violence, our findings indicate that much more could—and ought to—be done to help workers prepare for and navigate the realities of salon encounters.

Close-up of Woman Having Manicure, Pexals

A unit around emotional disclosures, how to respond, and who to refer clients to, for formal certifications for hair and beauty workers could be introduced systematically. This could involve a wide array of community programs from family violence to mental health and physical health services. Not only would this help better prepare workers and inform them of available community support to help make salon work safer, but it would also enable connections between services and salon client communities. This would potentially have far-reaching benefits for clients in need of much more than a haircut.

Stacey Mary Page is currently working on her PhD at The University of Adelaide’s School of Psychology, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences. Her published research is based on hairdressers providing informal care to their clientele via social support. Investigating the topics clients tell their hairdresser, including disclosures of distressing content about domestic violence and mental health problems. This research also gives insight into how hairdressers respond to client disclosures and how hairdressers feel about being social supports for their clients. Stacey’s PhD research aims to explore hairdresser, barber and client perspectives on social support; including benefits of wellbeing and risks of emotional burnout. Stacey would like to advocate and create training for hairdressers to effectively deal with the role of supporting clients safely and ethically. Stacey is also a qualified hairdresser and make-up artist, providing a unique insider perspective to research in this area.

Dr Hannah McCann is a Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies at The University of Melbourne. Her research in critical femininity studies explores feminist discourse on femininity, queer femme LGBTQ+ communities, beauty culture, and queer fangirls. She has published in various journals including European Journal of Women’s Studies, Women’s Studies Quarterly, and Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Her monograph Queering Femininity: Sexuality, Feminism and the Politics of Presentation was published with Routledge in 2018, and her co-authored textbook Queer Theory Now: From Foundations to Futures with Red Globe Press in 2020. She is currently working on a DECRA project exploring the relationship between salon workers and their clients, and the implications that the emotional side of salon work has for both the industry and for conceptualising beauty within feminist theory.

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