What is emotional labor?
Emotional labor is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot, but what does it really mean? It’s a term I’ve struggled to define in a perfect, simple sentence. But the truth is, emotional labor is a complex issue that’s easier to unpack with examples. So let’s start unpacking.
You know when a client comes into your office and mistakes you as the secretary, presumably just because you’re a woman, and you just chuckle and shrug it off? Or you rephrase an email upward of ten times so you don’t come off as too harsh and demanding? Or your male coworker asks you to explain the gender pay gap? Or you feel forced to constantly put on a happy face around the office so no one asks you why you’re not smiling? The internal toll those scenarios like these take on you is emotional labor.
Sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term emotional labor in 1983, and Journalist Gemma Hartley describes emotional labor as, “the unpaid, often unnoticed labor that goes into keeping those around you comfortable and happy.” So why does emotional labor disproportionately fall onto women? Probably because society teaches us from a young age that it’s our job to keep those around us happy and satisfied.
So, what's the problem?
These little things that go unnoticed may seem like they’re not a big deal, but it’s not healthy to micromanage your emotions and actions to please others.
Women are pulled in every which direction—we have to kick ass at our jobs, be assertive but not bossy, intelligent but not a know-it-all, and empathetic but never emotional (god forbid). Whenever we’re hit with sexist remarks or harassment at work, we’re conditioned to internalize them in order to keep the peace and not completely lose it. It takes an emotional toll on us to balance out all of these expectations and always remain calm. In other words, emotional labor is exhausting.
The toll of emotional labor can bleed into personal lives and relationships, it can harm productivity at work, drain you physically, and affect mental health.
I’m no stranger to it myself. My first day of work in Spain, I was smiling ear to ear, politely laughing at everyone’s jokes because I was genuinely excited to start working in a new place—and also because I wanted to make the best impression possible. Since then, I’ve felt pressure to maintain this positive, cheery presence. I worry that if I’m not constantly smiling, it’ll affect my coworkers and they’ll think something is wrong. Even if something is bothering me, I feel like I can’t let it show.
So what can you do about it?
The first step is just acknowledging that emotional labor is a reality. Since we’re so accustomed to emotional labor in our daily lives, we may not even realize we’re doing it. But if you find yourself emotionally drained and ready to explode with pent-up steam at the end of every day, start making a list of the labor you do at work that isn’t really part of your job description. Once you can see a physical list of everything you’re doing, it’ll be easier to manage the next steps.
Once you realize that it’s happening, seek out a female mentor. At InHerSight, we know how important it is to find the right mentor. To ease the burden of emotional labor, find one you can talk to about the weight it’s put on you, and together, you can develop a plan to better foster personal growth and a healthy workplace mindset.
Take a break. Even if it's just five minutes to step outside, close your eyes, and breathe in some fresh air—take time to step away from work, from obligations, from that coworker who's bringing you down. Walk around the block, listen to guided meditation or peaceful music. Even just a few minutes at a time can help you learn to release the weight of that labor.
Finally, set more boundaries for yourself. Don’t feel pressured to always clean up after your coworkers or say yes to requests and favors asked of you. Prioritize your own work, share more responsibility among your coworkers, and ask for help with managing projects and office housework. Don’t be afraid to voice your contributions and stand up for yourself. Keep on killin’ at the job you were hired to do!
By Cara Hutto
Born and raised a Tar Heel, Cara is a culinary aficionado and zealous writer consumed by wanderlust. She's passionate about women's issues and interviewing inspirational women in her community.