Pushing your own feelings aside, showing empathy for someone else’s needs, mentally arranging for the well-being of others, scheduling, processing, doing, planning, and thinking. Welcome to emotional labor — a requirement for many industries and workplaces.
Emotional labor refers to the effort and work put into managing your own emotions, displaying empathy and concern, and creating a positive experience for others. The term was coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book, The Managed Heart (1). It was meant to separate jobs requiring emotional labor from other types of work or physical labor.
Over the years, emotional labor has developed a deeper meaning. Now emotional labor refers to hiding your own feelings at that moment and showing other emotions that provide a positive experience for others. British journalist, Rose Hackman, says, “Emotional labor is not just editing your expression of your emotions to have an effect on the emotions of other people, but to actively put your emotions to work for other people, serving other people.”
If you look for it, you’ll see emotional labor constantly happening in our society — from personal relationships to workplace interactions. However, it is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, those who perform emotional labor have higher levels of emotional intelligence. They tend to adopt a “fake it until you make it” mentality that often results in true positive emotional experiences. Generally, those in roles requiring emotional labor have a natural skill set and enthusiasm for a job in which empathetic support is required. This, in turn, translates into high levels of job satisfaction.
Leadership roles require emotional labor. Effective leaders must manage emotions to provide a workplace culture and environment that protects all members of their team. Recognizing that this type of effort is, in fact, labor will help managers and leaders recognize and value emotional labor being performed by their workforce as well.
In general, workplace roles requiring emotional labor are disproportionately performed by women and disadvantaged groups. A staggering 78% or more of healthcare and service industry employees are women. And while this is a skill required to thrive in these industries, organizations often do not provide training for coping strategies, nor do they recognize or fully value the impact that it has on their workforce. This lack of support perpetuates inequality, reinforces traditional gender roles and pay gaps, and can limit opportunities for career advancement.
The devaluation of emotional labor becomes even more complex when considering intersectionality. Women of color, individuals from the LGBTQ+ community, and those with disabilities often face compounded challenges when it comes to emotional labor. They experience not only gender-based expectations but also encounter racial, ethnic, or other biases that further devalue their contributions. The result is a system that perpetuates multiple layers of inequality.
So, what can your organization do to break the cycle, offer value to emotional labor, and build more equity throughout your organization?
Invest in the well-being of your team members with stress management and mental health awareness opportunities and programs.
Teach problem-solving techniques that provide your employees with tools that go beyond the basic script or standard operating procedures in the company manual.
Provide a forum for employees to share stories and engage in cooperative learning for dealing with difficult and challenging circumstances.
Recognize the skills needed by adding emotional labor questions to employee evaluations to show you recognize and value how they support your organization each day.
Take time to evaluate how your organization recognizes and rewards leaders and team members for the emotional labor that they perform. The Folke Institute provides coaching and hands-on training for individuals and groups that are tailored to address industry and organizational needs. Check out the many ways we can help you reach your greatest potential.
1, Hochschild, A. (1983). 'Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling,' University of California Press.