Emotional labor is a loaded term.
Especially because, for many women, it means taking on the lion’s share of work at home and in the office, then having to manage all the emotions that come with that.
The exact definition of emotional labor has evolved since it was first coined by Arlie Hochschild, so if you ask five different people what emotional labor is, you’ll get five different answers. Here are some examples:
Verywell Mind calls it unpaid work that people do to keep others happy. An example of this would be prohibiting an employee from responding to a customer who has disrespected them, suppressing their own feelings to uphold the company’s “customer is always right” approach.
According to BetterUp, emotional labor is the act of managing people’s feelings to keep your job. This might show up in the workplace as frequently listening to your supervisor’s personal issues and helping them process how they feel about those issues because you feel you’re required to.
Hochschild, who introduced the idea of ‘emotional labor’ in her 1983 book, The Managed Heart, defines the term as being paid to feel whatever is needed to perform a job, even if that feeling is inauthentic. For instance, nurses are expected to feel empathy, even when treating patients who are rude, unkind, violent, or even menacing.
Dr. Erica B. Walls, Owner and CEO of Inspire to Excel, defines emotional labor as carrying the work with you even after you’ve clocked out. Walls, who has a long history of overseeing programs and initiatives designed to empower women and foster social justice, founded the career coaching company to help women achieve their professional goals without sacrificing personal fulfillment—in other words, Walls helps women get good jobs. So, what is a good job?
According to Walls, a good job is more than employment. In fact, a good job requires that you earn a living wage (at minimum, remember a good salary is around $75,000), work for a company that cares, and feel excited about the work you do, among other things. Hopefully, a good job is also one that drastically reduces emotional labor and is performed in an environment where managers, leaders, and decision-makers monitor the level of emotional labor associated with the role to proactively combat adverse effects.
How emotional labor affects women
Burnout and changing who you are to fit in at work, also known as assimilation, are just a few issues associated with emotional labor—not to be confused with emotional work, which speaks to changing your feelings to match a situation. Additional effects of emotional labor include:
Low job satisfaction
Dysmenorrhea, or more intense menstrual cycles
Although they are likely to affect women differently, the impacts of emotional labor can manifest in mental, physical, and emotional forms. What many women once thought of as small sacrifices to keep the peace at work (and often, at home) has been revealed as extensive measures taken to maintain job security, appease employers, avoid being stereotyped, and keep their households together. Ultimately, many women feel it is easier to “toe the line” at work, not realizing that this holds even more troubling consequences for overall health.
Further, most women simply don’t have the emotional bandwidth—or capacity to take on more stuff—to overcome while juggling paid work and myriad other responsibilities.
For women in leadership roles, the toll that emotional labor can have on overall health may be even more concerning. When asked whether she thinks women leaders take on more emotional labor than men in similar roles, Walls says, “Research indicates that men tend to go into work and business ownership for financial reasons far more often than women do. Women tend to go into these things for who they can help.”
She adds, “Women connect and collaborate in order to get things done because that is how we naturally do things, but we can also carry that from the office into the home, and it can continue to concern us even after 5 p.m. Women tend to wear other hats that require so much of us.” In addition to wearing many hats, women often find themselves wearing many faces as well. This is especially true for women of color who work in predominantly white work environments and for women who:
Speak a language other than English at home
Have physical or mental disabilities
Live within low-income communities
Are first-generation U.S. citizens and/or first-generation college students
Have immigrated from other countries, leaving behind family, culture, and customs
Women who identify with these experiences have always faced a different set of challenges in the workplace, devoting too much time and energy to making themselves more palatable at work. However, by taking those measures, women have adopted burnout—and what some refer to as a cultural kind of code-switching—as a way of life.
So, although emotional labor comes in different forms, there is no greater form of emotional labor than having to leave your true self at the door and become someone else for 40 hours per week or more.
Walls concurs, suggesting, “You don’t have to be someone else to make money. You can be you. Imagine that: How happy, how fulfilled would people be if they could just be themselves in the work that they do?” Perhaps emotional labor doesn’t have to be the norm for you, especially if you find an employer that is willing to provide support as an ally.
3 ways companies can remove the burden of emotional labor
Walls believes that more people are beginning to demand the kind of work environment that requires less emotional labor and more emotional fulfillment. In fact, she agrees that employers can help women drastically reduce the amount of emotional labor they expend just to get their job done, have a voice at work, or minimize the parts of themselves that actually make them great. Here’s how:
1. Ask women directly.
Instead of trying to guess what it is women need to remove emotional labor, give them the space to tell you themselves.
2. Prioritize what your employees need on a regular basis.
“Not just during Women’s History Month,” says Walls. “It should be every day. It should be a business priority, just like any other strategic planning that is done. And it needs to be high on the list.”
3. Promote soft skills.
“It’s interesting that we call them soft skills; those that women tend to master,” says Walls. “Think about water; water has got to be the softest element on earth but enough of it will cut through rock. The softest thing that there is can also be the most effective.” Walls’ astute observation is right on target; this study by Korn Ferry confirmed that women not only excel in using soft skills but also surpass men in emotional intelligence. By promoting soft skills, allies would also be promoting skill sets that many women excel in naturally or because of societal conditioning, which improves women’s access to leadership roles and de-stigmatizes soft skills as less superior competencies at work.
3 ways allies at work and at home can alleviate emotional labor
It’s important to note that allies can be men or women; at work or at home. If you are a partner, friend, or family member who wants to know how you can reduce or remove the burden of emotional labor for the women in your life, start with these actions:
1. Model a healthy distribution of household duties.
Essentially, it is up to every individual to set their own boundaries but women often learn boundaries from other women, such as their mothers, sisters, and girlfriends. According to LeanIn, only 9 percent of married couples in two-income families split major responsibilities at home, so by demonstrating a healthy version of that, you can inspire women you know to achieve the same thing.
2. Promote open communication by welcoming both positive and constructive criticism.
Embracing the good and the not-so-good feedback that people give you is a sign of maturity, accountability, and humility—all characteristics that women need in an ally. Read more about handling getting called out like an ally.
3. Don’t just establish your own boundaries—respect other people’s boundaries, too.
Women who feel like their boundaries are acknowledged and respected by their partners, family members, and friends tend to feel empowered to be assertive in the workplace.
4 ways women can reduce emotional labor for themselves
In addition to being your own biggest advocate, you can serve as an ally to other women by:
1. Elevating other women’s voices at work and at home.
Point out helpful suggestions made by other women, credit them for great ideas, and create an opening for them to speak when they’ve been interrupted or silenced. Advocating for just one woman can help shift the culture at work, which has positive implications for all women.
2. Don’t always expect an ally to look like you.
Some allies will have a different set of ideals or come from a different background and yet some of these people will speak up the loudest for you when it truly matters. Be open to the allies you expect as well as the ones you never saw coming.
3. Let people help but be selective about who that is.
Walls recommends keeping “non-toxic people” in your circle.
4. Be good to yourself.
Everything from eating well and exercising to revisiting your favorite pastimes are on Walls’ list of things you should do for yourself. “Have hobbies that are just for you! Pull out that tutu and dance or pull out that canvas and paint. Get in touch with who you are because people will put their stuff on you and a lot of women volunteer to take it. You have to put that down in order to be who you are.”
About our source
Erica Walls is the owner and CEO of Inspire to Excel, a career coaching firm that empowers women to gain and retain gooood jobs™. She helps women to build confidence, sharpen their skills, and gain/retain jobs that align with their gifts, skills, and talents. Erica is a certified coach, professor of human services and social policy, mentor, and advocate of women’s leadership and empowerment.