Emotional labor: How to relate – and recover – in your role

November 9, 2021 - 15 min read

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What is emotional labor?

Emotional labor at work vs. emotional labor in relationships

What are the consequences of emotional labor at work?

Emotional labor and feminism

5 ways to relieve the pressure of emotional labor

Bottom line: Your feelings are also a job

What is emotional labor?

Emotional labor is when a person is responsible for managing feelings and emotions — whether yours or someone else’s — in order to maintain a job or relationship. The term originally referred to people who had to be “nicer than natural” in order to deliver a service or meet standards. Coined in 1983 by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her book, The Managed Heart, the term was designed to separate people who did emotional labor from other types of work — for example, physical laborers.

In modern usage, the term has expanded to include the emotional regulation and demands of a relationship — whether inside or outside of work. A study published in 2000 notes that “the study of emotional labor addresses the stress of managing emotions when the work role demands that certain expressions be shown to customers.” 

As such, the best way to think about emotional labor might be the internal stress that is created when you’re forced to suppress how you feel to manage another person’s experience. 

Emotional labor at work vs. emotional labor in relationships

In the workplace, emotional labor specifically refers to jobs that require managing feelings and emotions. For many of us, this kind of emotional labor was our first foray into the world of work. An overwhelming number of the most common “first jobs” people hold are in the service industry, where we’re taught to bite our tongue and that the “customer is always right.”

Training largely focuses on managing other people’s emotions, particularly soothing upsets around failed expectations. There’s not much about dealing with our own frustrations, or how to finally let off steam after the shift.

The question has to be asked: if work is supposed to provide valuable life experience, what are we taking away from the experience of cleaning up after others — physically and emotionally? What lessons about responsibility are we teaching when we reward people for being emotionally responsible for others?

Although Hochschild never intended for the term to move beyond paid work, there’s a startling connection between how we show up at work and how we show up in the rest of our lives. After all, how many people find themselves in caretaking roles in both home and work? Or serve as the “therapist” for their friends and family?

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Our personalities are often tied into our work, and the work we choose to do often reflects some aspect of who we are. For that reason, it's incredibly easy for the habits that we develop in one area of our lives to show up elsewhere. The question becomes: if you’re carrying emotional weight in your work life and in your home life, when do you get to take a break?

Here are some roles — personal and professional — that require emotional labor:

Jobs that require emotional labor:

  • Caregiving professions, like nursing, therapy, and elder support
  • Teaching (even adults!)
  • Customer service roles, like hospitality, flight attendants, or tech support
  • Law enforcement and emergency management services
  • People management and human resources

Relationships that require emotional labor:

  • Relationships with emotionally unstable partners
  • Codependency
  • Parent/young child relationships
  • Relationships where one person always shares and never listens

You may notice three things about these categories. One, there’s a high potential for overlap, or for factors to compound. It’s possible, for example, to have an emotionally unstable manager or coworker, which would put additional strain on the working relationship.

Second, not all emotional labor is inherently bad or reflects an inappropriate dynamic. Parents do quite a bit of emotional labor on behalf of their children, managing their emotions even as they teach their kids to process their own. 

Third, not all emotional labor is built the same. We could get a more granular look at the effects of emotional labor by refining the categories we use. The most valuable distinction isn’t the one between the labor done at home or at work. It’s actually — as defined by Karen Pugliesi in her 1999 study — the difference between self-focused and other-focused emotion management. Whereas it’s often said that all emotional labor has a negative impact, it’s actually self-management that has the most detrimental effects.

So it’s not necessarily that we want to get rid of emotional labor all together. It’d be hard to argue the benefits of saying exactly what you think and feel to everyone in your life. What we want is to understand the consequences of emotional labor, and how to manage the stress that comes with this kind of work.

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What are the consequences of emotional labor at work?

In the workplace, emotional labor often indicates a high degree of stress and a perceived lack of control. It’s this combination of factors that researchers credit with the negative effects of emotional labor and self-regulation. 

Most kinds of emotional labor are carried out with one of two coping strategies. The first is called deep acting. It requires changing external behaviors by managing the underlying feelings. Employees basically “convince” or “remind” themselves that the behavior that they want to portray is in line with a deeper value.

For example, an employee may be having a hard time dealing with an angry customer. Reminding themselves that they’re a “problem solver” or that they help to create loyalty by dealing with customer concerns may help them feel good about the situation and suppress frustration. In this case, their commitment is reflected authentically in their emotional expression.

If the employee isn’t authentically connected to their values as a reason for the emotional labor, they tend to default to surface-level acting. Even the most dedicated, enthusiastic employee will have a day where they feel angry, sick, or tired. These conditions tend to be more likely to bring out surface acting, where they “fake” the acceptable response to get through the interaction.

So what's the problem with deciding to just “grin and bear it” at work? Acting in a way that is out of alignment with how you really think or feel creates cognitive dissonance. Deanna Geddes, professor of human resources management at Temple University, says that when employees have to fake it, “they tend to experience more job burnout, lower feelings of job accomplishment and less job involvement” as a result of cognitive dissonance.

Here are 4 consequences of emotional labor at work:

Cognitive dissonance: increased mental discomfort and stress because you’re holding conflicting points of view 

Increased stress: a 2017 study found that teachers who had to do lots of surface-level acting had higher concentrations of the stress hormone, cortisol

Fatigue: the self-control and constant effort it takes to manage one’s own emotions over an extended period leads to emotional exhaustion, reduced performance, and burnout

Reduced self-efficacy: feeling inauthentic can contribute to impostor syndrome, feelings of inadequacy, and a reduced sense of job accomplishment 

Emotional labor and feminism

Many people have difficulty distinguishing the difference between emotional labor and unseen household labor. While there is a great degree of overlap, much of the confusion is due to the fact that a lot of jobs that we associate with women require emotional labor. 

Although men take on a greater share of household labor than previous generations, research indicates that women still handle the brunt of the household tasks. As business management professor and researcher Erin Rae Fluegge, Ph.D. notes, being married and feeling like a de-facto household manager is “hard emotional work.” 

While household tasks, like childcare, schedule management, and chores involve emotional labor, they don’t have to have the same negative effects. Much of the cognitive load with household stress comes from feeling “responsible” for keeping the house running, everyone happy, and the added responsibility of a full-time job. 

This definition of “emotional labor” is often debated by researchers, who feel that emotional labor is specific to the demands of the role. But journalist Gemma Hartley describes emotional labor as "the unpaid, often unnoticed labor that goes into keeping those around you comfortable and happy." That certainly includes household chores.

Using this definition broadens the focus to the experience and stress associated with emotional labor, which is a necessary lens for dealing with it. This invisible labor is encoded into certain professions and gender roles, and ignoring it doesn't make it less damaging or real.

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5 ways to relieve the pressure of emotional labor

As mentioned, much of the stress of emotional labor comes from cognitive dissonance. This psychological phenomenon leads to anxiety, burnout, and reduced satisfaction in both job and personal life. Many people who do excessive emotion work as part of their jobs feel less willing to engage at home. They often self-medicate with alcohol when they’re tired of regulating themselves.

The answer to cognitive dissonance is — counterintuitively — to lean into it. Emotions provide information, and ignoring them doesn’t make them go away. Here are some ways to manage cognitive dissonance both inside and outside the workplace.

Authenticity

Make time to connect with people or things that you love in a genuine way. The strong negative impact emotional labor has on mental health comes from surface-level acting. It's important to take periodic breaks throughout the workday to realign, chat with coworkers, or express your frustrations to a coach. This can help to relieve the mental load of having to "fake it" all the time.

Ask for help

If you find that you're doing the brunt of the emotional labor at home, at work or in a relationship, ask for help. Think of meaningful ways that your partner, friend, family member, or coworker can reciprocate the energy that you put into the relationship (hint: if you’re complaining, that’s usually a good place to start.

Mindfulness

Becoming more aware of your own emotions and motivations and how to connect them to the behavior you need to show at work is the heart of deep acting. Mindfulness helps to build emotional regulation skills, which are crucial for relieving the pressure of emotional labor. You can try meditating regularly or checking in with an intention that guides the actions you want to take. 

Regain your sense of control

In her research on emotional labor, Hochschild found that low perceived control combined with high pressure to conform to an emotional standard increased stress and burnout for employees. You can manage this by retaking control where you can. What are some ways you can create emotional boundaries at work?

Self-care

Taking care of your well-being is powerful. It's very difficult to regulate your emotions when your basic needs aren't covered. Because emotional labor, like physical effort, can be draining, take the time to restore yourself. Even if you don't have a lot of time, small breaks will help you recover from the cognitive and emotional stress.

Bottom line: Your feelings are also a job

Emotional effort isn’t so different from physical effort — and that means you can manage them both using some of the same tools. Just as mindfulness and support help athletes envision performance on the playing field, you can set yourself up for healthy, sustainable emotional labor. Treat your feelings like a job, and protect your ability to show up for yourself — and others — every day by taking care of yourself.

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Published November 9, 2021

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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