What Is Emotional labor?

This headache is getting in the way of her work

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What Is Emotional Labor?

Emotional Labor

Emotional labor is unpaid, often invisible work that a person is compelled to do by others to keep them happy.

It can be an employer's rule that employees may not react to customer mistreatment, a partner's presumption that the other person will handle housework and life logistics, or an acquaintance wanting an explanation for why their behavior is problematic.

The Origin Of The Term

The term "emotional labor" was coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1983 in her book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. At the time, Hochschild defined emotional labor as a workplace-only occurrence.

In the decades since, emotional labor has grown to be used in our society to describe the unpaid, often invisible work done by one person to quell the needs or demands of others, both in the workplace and in social and domestic situations.

Emotional labor is often conflated and used interchangeably with the term "emotion work," which is a term for the social tasks one performs to satisfy others. Hochschild coined the term "emotion work" in an essay in 1979.

Though emotion work was intended to be used for separate situations than emotional labor, the two have been considered interchangeable in recent years. The evolution of emotional labor as a term to also encompass demands outside the workplace was solidified with the release of Gemma Hartley's book Fed Up: Women, Emotional Labor, and the Way Forward in 2018.

How Emotional Labor Manifests

Emotional labor can manifest in multiple settings. The most common ones are listed below.

Workplace

Emotional labor in the workplace consists of practices and rules for employees that are implemented for the sake of satisfying customers. They center around employees needing to manage their emotions and not express them to others. Here are a few examples of emotional labor in the workplace:

  • The insistence that employees always smile at customers and/or act "peppy"
  • Prevention of response to a customer when they treat an employee rudely or inappropriately
  • Punishment if an employee reacts after being treated unfairly or inappropriately

Partnership

In intimate settings such as with loved ones, emotional labor may show up in quieter ways than in the workplace. Here are a few ways people are asked to perform emotional labor in intimate settings:

  • One person in a relationship is expected to perform all house management work
  • One person is expected to handle childcare and all needs of the couple's child or children
  • One person is expected to initiate discussions, whether about emotional topics or life logistics

Social Networking

If you spend any time on social media, you may have heard the term emotional labor thrown around. On group forums, in comments threads, or elsewhere on both private and public profiles, one person's demands by another are often responded to with a mention of emotional labor. Here are several examples:

  • When someone is called racist or sexist, they insist their accuser explain how what they did was racist or sexist.
  • When a person wants more information on a topic, they ask others to explain it to them.
  • After explanations are given, the person continues to insist on their good intentions and wants those against whom they acted to validate their intentions.

Who Bears the Burden Of Emotional Labor?

It shouldn't be surprising that it is marginalized people who generally bear the burden of emotional labor. People demanding it are generally doing so from a place of privilege.

BIPOC

The burden to explain racism and the racist acts of white people are often placed on people of color. However, among BIPOC, the burden of behaving to appease White people falls most heavily on Black people.

Think of their increased risk of police brutality, their higher than average chance of being victims of domestic abuse, or the substandard medical care they often receive. Yet, in those instances and many others, Black people are forced to behave in a way that helps White people view them as people such as maintaining politeness in the face of overt racism.

Research has found that racial minority groups are often othered and dehumanized by those with majority group status.

When a BIPOC person accuses a White person of racism, the demand made by the White person to explain how their behavior was racist is a demand of emotional labor. It is requesting the time and energy of a marginalized person to educate someone who exists in a more privileged position in society.

People Of Marginalized Genders

People who exist outside of the cisgender label are often expected to explain their identities to cis people. When a person is transgender, gender non-conforming, or nonbinary and a cis person requests information about their identity, that is a request for emotional labor.

Asking for education about why a person uses the pronouns they do is an example of the emotional labor demands placed on people of marginalized genders by cis people.

Women

The unspoken expectation that in a nuclear family unit, it is the woman's job to do everything from care for children to manage finances to acquire home supplies is also a form of emotional labor.

This is the clearest version of what was formerly called emotion work— conforming to the expectations of one's role in society for the sake of pleasing others. Assuming that if there is conflict, the woman will initiate the discussion around it is an expectation of emotional labor on the woman's part.

Employees

In a society oriented around customer service and treating people as if "the customer is always right," employees are often left to suffer. That's because the focus on keeping employees quiet and smiling when customers are mistreating them is unfair to employees.

Despite having been labeled essential workers during the COVID-19 global pandemic, service employees are often low-paid laborers. When you add the difficulties of not being allowed to speak up for oneself on the job to physical labor and often unrewarding job tasks, this can make employment particularly hard for employees in these sectors.

The Impact of Emotional Labor

The most basic impact of emotional labor on the people it is demanded of is exhaustion. It can be tiresome and frustrating to have to behave in a way that appeases others. This is shown notably in studies that track how verbal abuse by customers leads to negative outcomes, such as exhaustion and lack of job satisfaction, for employees.

For marginalized people such as Black people, it would be worth exploring what the impact is on their mental health, but that has not been studied at length yet.

What To Do Instead Of Demanding Labor From Others

Emotional labor does not need to be the go-to-way that people deal with situations, and those on whom the burden is placed would be better served if it weren't. These are some ways you can avoid demanding the emotional labor of others.

Conduct Your Own Research

If a marginalized person tells you that your behavior was racist, sexist, prejudiced, or otherwise problematic, do your own research to discern why.

Please do not ask the person whom you have offended to explain it to you. Instead, use a search engine and enter the keywords you referenced in the statement you were told was offensive.

For example, in a Facebook group for women, a woman asked, "Do nonbinary people join women's and men's groups?" Rather than requiring nonbinary people to explain who does and doesn't join what groups, the person in the women's group could have googled "what spaces do nonbinary people join?" or "do nonbinary people join social groups for all genders?"

View Situations Through Others' Eyes

For those who find themselves expecting others to do invisible, unpaid work to keep life running smoothly, it can be helpful to view situations through the person's eyes. For example, if you are a husband who expects your wife to arrange childcare, clean the house, and shop for groceries, you could try doing a couple of those things in one day to see how much energy they take.

Sometimes when we step into other people's shoes, we can see the difficulties and challenges they face. That, in turn, can lead us to appreciate others more for the work they do and even to take on some of that work ourselves so that their burden is lessened.

Craft Fair Workplace Policies

Though it isn't illegal to demand employees always offer service with a smile or not react to mistreatment, it is a way to have less happy employees.

If you care about the well-being of the people you employ, craft workplace policies centered around fairness for all people, not only customers.

Create new systems that enable autonomy for employees, such as not punishing when employees speak up for themselves. This doesn't have to lead to melee but rather can be done in an organized, structured fashion built into employee codes and workplace guidelines. In turn, employers could have workers who are less emotionally exhausted.

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Article Sources
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