A co-worker made an inappropriate remark about editor Leah Cowan’s race and gender. She hid her true feelings. “I hoisted a smile onto my face. I laughed. And I moved the conversation along,” she told her audience at TEDx Royal Central School. “I performed the emotional labor of mitigating an unwelcome comment.”
Emotional labor is the effort put toward maintaining an emotional composure that differs from what we really feel inside. Although emotional labor is an essential requirement in many professional roles, women disproportionately bear the brunt of emotional labor in the workplace.
The costs are cumulative for women and the organizations they work for. According to Psychology Today, “there is little doubt that constant emotional labor is exhausting [and the results of] constant episodes of masking true feelings with a smile are burnout, strain, job dissatisfaction, and turnover.”
What can workplace leaders do to address emotional labor and alleviate its burden on women in the workforce? We can start by learning more about what emotional labor is, and how skilled leaders build teams to manage it before workers burn out.
What Is Emotional Labor?
Emotional labor is work that involves trying to feel a specific emotion on the job. This takes the form of evoking some feelings and suppressing other ones.
Sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who coined the term emotional labor in 1983, gives examples in The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling:
- At one extreme, flight attendants are paid to be far more polite and positive than they really feel. Flight attendants must suppress feelings of annoyance, frustration, and boredom while conjuring feelings of calm.
- At another extreme, debt collectors are trained to exhibit harsh feelings, if necessary, to perform their role effectively. (Leveraging emotional severity and toughness to extract payments from debtors, for example.) Thus, debt collectors may be paid to suppress sympathy, among other prosocial emotions, on the job.
As Hochschild clarifies in a 2018 interview with The Atlantic, all emotional labor involves “being hired and monitored for your capacity to manage and produce a feeling.”
Emotional Labor and Gender
Feminists have traced a throughline from historically gendered expectations of emotional management to today’s implicit assumptions about who should deal with emotional conflict in our workplaces.
In 2018, Gemma Hartley popularized a new, broader conception of emotional labor with her article “Women Aren’t Nags — We’re Just Fed Up” for Harper’s Bazaar. There, she defined emotional labor as the unpaid, (often) unnoticed labor “that goes into keeping everyone around you comfortable and happy.”
Hartley’s article struck a chord with working women. It met a need for a term to describe women’s emotion management — both at work and at home — as yet another undervalued, underpaid activity women are expected to perform for free (with social sanctions leveraged against women who fail to meet this gendered expectation).
Western culture has long socialized women and girls to be emotional caretakers, while simultaneously stunting the socially acceptable emotional range allowed for men and boys.
In practice, this manifests as implicit assumptions about how women should come across at work. Working women are more likely than men to be expected to:
- Not be too assertive or threatening in meetings
- Possess innate skills in dealing with difficult clients or co-workers
- Offer emotional support to subordinates
- Automatically know how to address gender-related problems in the workplace.
Examples of Emotional Labor in the Workplace
Emotional labor can take many forms. Here are examples of how women may be disproportionately expected to perform emotional labor at work.
Workplace culture may put expectations on women employees to:
- Act as emotional regulators in group situations (to keep employees level-headed and calm during conflict)
- Serve as therapists for bosses and co-workers (allowing others to vent to them indefinitely)
- Know details of calendars, work schedules, and logistics even when these fall outside of their job description (acting as a de facto secretary)
- Be receptive to hearing about interpersonal disputes
- Assume only the best intentions in co-workers and leadership
- Laugh at jokes told by bosses, clients, and customers (even when the jokes aren’t funny)
- Educate co-workers on diversity-related issues (regardless of their level of expertise on the subject)
Race, Class, and Gender: More Demands for Emotional Labor
Women are also expected to take derogatory, deprecating, or otherwise inappropriate comments in stride, putting the emotional well-being of their teams and colleagues above their own. Emotional labor demands may be worse for women of color who must brush off not only implicit sexism but racism as well. “Women of color do this every day,” explains Cowan.
Women may be expected to provide “service with a smile” regardless of the situation. Working class women, especially those in jobs with high turnover, may be especially vulnerable to the demands of emotional labor; women in service industry jobs may have little room to push back against gendered expectations to manage their own emotions and the emotions of others.
Costs of Emotional Labor
Psychologist Susan David describes emotional labor as the “effort it takes to keep your professional game face on when what you’re doing is not concordant with how you feel.” The mismatch between how we might feel (say, frustrated) and the demeanor our jobs expect from us (say, patient, calm) calls for significant mental and emotional effort. Over time, it takes a toll.
Worse Performance on the Job
Maintaining the “game face” takes away energy from a worker’s mental resources. Studies show that emotional labor depletes cognitive energy, causing workers who perform emotional labor for long periods of time to make more mistakes and take longer to complete tasks. High levels of emotional exhaustion also correlate with lower job satisfaction, which may reduce a worker’s output.
Long-Term Health Effects
Decades of research show that emotional labor exhausts us, impacting our health and job performance. Adverse health outcomes include:
- Loss of memory
- Heart disease
Some jobs are especially taxing. Psychology Today found that staff turnover rates in senior care facilities soared beyond 70% in 2018. And “in jobs that rely on tipping,” the article reports, “mental health outcomes are exacerbated among women.”
To sum up, emotional labor needs to be properly acknowledged, managed, and supported in the workplace so that workers feel less depleted.
How to Address Emotional Labor at Work
Given that emotional labor is built into many jobs, how can we protect the well-being of workers? How do we reduce the negative costs of emotional labor?
Deep Acting and Workers’ Values
Studies show that “surface acting,” or showing a “fake” emotion ( “This co-worker is frustrating, but I need to be polite”), takes more mental effort than “deep acting,” showing a genuine emotion in line with our values ( “This co-worker is frustrating, but I want to try to support her”).
Steps for Empowering Emotionally Agile Workers
Some steps for improving workplace culture to enable workers to perform emotional labor without burning out include the following.
- Affirm that emotional labor matters: Encourage conversations about the emotional impact of work roles and tasks, talk with teams about emotional drains, and encourage workers to share their experiences of what helps.
- Help workers align their values with their work: Deep acting occurs when a worker exhibits genuine emotions that stem from their values. Workplaces can enable deep acting by asking employees to reflect on their values, by naming the organizational values, and by helping to find connections between a worker’s role and their values.
- Offer scheduled recovery times: Ensure people are taking regular breaks for good mental and emotional recovery.
- Foster positive emotional experiences for teams: Celebrate successes, give praise and acknowledgement, and show appreciation and gratitude for effort as well as for work done well.
- Offer emotional agility training: Rather than assume that women (or workers from any particular background) have the skills to deal with emotional conflicts at work, offer regular training for all workers to practice naming, expressing, and discussing their emotions.
For organizations, cultivating an environment of psychological safety where workers can authentically express their emotions, both positive and negative, is critical to managing emotional labor.
Develop Emotional Agility in Leadership
Although most organizations want to foster an emotionally resilient workforce, many may not know exactly how. The Women in Leadership degree programs at St. Catherine University offer extensive resources for today’s workplace. Students will experience the university’s commitment to teaching inclusive, equitable content and helping students develop a wide range of leadership skills.
Frontiers in Psychology, “The ‘Managed’ or Damaged Heart? Emotional Labor, Gender, and Posttraumatic Stressors Predict Workplace Event-Related Acute Changes in Cortisol, Oxytocin, and Heart Rate Variability”