What Emotional Labor Really Does To Us At Work And At Home

Emotional labor may not be seen, but that doesn’t mean it’s not taking a major toll on our lives.

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When the phrase “emotional labor” was born, it was a way for sociologist Arlie Hochschild to explain the work of regulating your emotions in the workplace. Ever had to give yourself a pep talk before walking out to deal with angry customers? That’s emotional labor. Ever had to pump yourself up so you could face a classroom full of rambunctious kids who you have to teach? Yup, emotional labor. If you’re thinking, hey, wait, I’ve been hearing a lot about emotional labor these days, and it had nothing to do with the workplace, well, you’re right. Since Hochschild first coined the phrase in 1983 in her book The Managed Heart, it’s been adopted by countless people to describe situations in which the effort of managing emotions is heaped on a particular person—typically a female-identifying person. So what is emotional labor? Is it managing your emotions in the workplace, or is it what happens in your house when your partner expects you to always be the one who “fixes” squabbles and makes things right? Here’s what the experts say about emotional labor and how to manage it.

What is emotional labor?

If you go by Hochschild’s definition, emotional labor refers to regulating or managing emotional expressions with others as part of one’s professional work role.   For example, Christie Heltzell used to work in a marketing role, where high-paying clients paid for access to her in order to help them utilize marketing software and plan advanced marketing tactics. “I had one client who was the business owner’s daughter, and she was a spoiled and entitled snob,” Heltzell says. “While trying to help make her ridiculous requests happen despite my repeated explanations that what she was asking for was impossible, she repeatedly put me on hold, once to even answer a call where I heard, ‘Yes, daddy, I’ll be down shortly. This stupid girl is cutting into my lunch break, but I’ll make her finish her job soon.’ When she came back on, she told me, ‘Look, I have a meeting to get to that is really important. Can you do your job or not?’” Heltzell had to hold her tongue, working to keep her emotions in check in order to do her job. “As I started to explain again why what she’d asked was literally impossible, she sighed and said, ‘Can’t you just DO it? We pay you to say yes,’” Heltzell says. “I ended up punching my desk, something I’d never done before, while simultaneously trying to keep my voice incredibly sweet and explain for the fiftieth time why what she was asking for wasn’t even a real thing.” The need to physically hold one’s emotions in check might sound familiar to countless people, but it’s rarely recognized as a physical part of the job. “Emotional labor [or EL] is parallel to physical labor; both are occupations that tend to require a lot of effort, but EL is effort around emotions and tends to be female-dominated, i.e., service or caring work, and physical labor is effort with the body and tends to be male-dominated,” explains Alicia A. Grandey, PhD, a professor of industrial-organizational psychology and director of graduate studies in psychology at Penn State University. Grandey, who once worked as a barista at a coffee bar, knows the toll emotional labor can take on someone all too well. “To perform emotional labor, employees may use deep acting to modify their inner emotions, like ‘pump themselves up’ before going out on the work floor—for example, a teacher may do this on the first day—or doing pep talks—for example, flight attendants reminding themselves that passengers are their guests on this flight,” Grandey says. That work, although not visible or necessarily quantifiable to the employers who depend on metrics to evaluate just how well their employees are performing, is nonetheless valuable to employers and significant on the part of the employees themselves. You know how you feel when you walk out of work, right? You know that ebb and flow you felt throughout the day? As Grandey has posited in her studies, “This physiological activity, or ‘bottling up’ of emotions, taxes the body over time by overworking the cardiovascular and nervous systems and weakening the immune system.” An estimated 40 percent of Americans admit they’ve taken a personal day simply for emotional recovery. Sometimes we need to get an emotional break from our emotions. “The sheer entitlement and attitude people give you when you work customer service is more exhausting than anything else I’ve ever done,” Heltzell tells HealthyWay. She says people take every break to “vent and blow off steam about the person they just spoke to.” It’s something employers are (slowly) starting to ascertain. In one Yale study of employee engagement, researchers found that one out of five employees reported both high engagement and high burnout. And according to the American Psychological Association’s 2013 Work and Well-Being Survey, 37 percent of women said they typically feel tense or stressed at work (5 percent more than men in the survey), and just 34 percent of women say they have enough resources to handle stress at work. “Emotional labor, like physical labor, is effortful and fatiguing when done repeatedly all day long and can be costly in terms of performance errors and job burnout,” Grandey says, “especially when surface acting because it results in feeling inauthentic.”

So what is emotional labor outside of the workplace?

But what about the emotional labor that isn’t labor in the traditional sense? It’s true that Hochschild coined the term to refer to labor in the traditional sense, e.g. what you do in the office or on a factory floor. But more often of late, “emotional labor” has been used in reference to the type of emotions you put forth in your day-to-day, even after you’re punching a time clock. Gemma Hartley scored a viral hit with a Harper’s Bazaar article dubbed “Women Aren’t Nags—We’re Just Fed Up,” and she’s author of the forthcoming book Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward. To Hartley, emotional labor isn’t just the sort of work for which folks might be paid—even when the work itself is ignored—it’s also work put forth on the emotional front in the home. “I define emotional labor a bit more broadly than the original sociological definition,” Hartley says. “When I am talking about emotional labor, I am talking about the largely invisible mental and emotional work, mostly done by women, which helps keep those around them comfortable and happy.” Not sure what she means? Take, for example, this slice of life from Hartley’s viral essay. After asking her husband to hire a house cleaner as a Mother’s Day gift, Hartley was faced with a holiday spent wrangling her children as her husband—who’d opted to do the job himself—hoisted a toilet brush:

I was gifted a necklace for Mother’s Day while my husband stole away to deep clean the bathrooms, leaving me to care for our children as the rest of the house fell into total disarray.

Her “gift” was forcing her to be “on” while her kids screamed for mommy, mommy, mommy. Although it’s not quite what Hochschild had in mind when she coined the term, this feeling has its own place, says Tina Tessina, PhD, a couples therapist and author of How to be Happy Partners: Working it out Together. When working with couples, Tessina terms it “self-management,” in other words the ability to manage whatever emotional reactions or basic emotions one has in order to succeed better in relationships, social, or work settings.   “We all have a variety of emotional responses to the stimuli around us, as well as emotional responses to our own attitudes, beliefs, expectations, and prejudices,” Tessina says.  “Learning to become aware of our own feelings, and process or regulate them on an ongoing basis, is a primary life skill. Those who have the skill to understand and manage their own feelings generally do better in all kinds of relationships, and create less unnecessary stress in their lives.” Just as employers need to become more mindful of the emotional tasks they demand of their employees, Tessina says it’s important for partners to be cognizant of the emotional burdens they lay on each other. Emotional labor in relationships comes down to “work necessary to manage and enjoy intimacy with your partner in a long-term relationship,” Tessina says. Some of that is natural. We all have to grin and bear it sometimes for the sake of compromise, but when you find yourself always fighting your emotions to put on a happy face, your emotional labor may be a bit above and beyond. For example, if you wake up in a bad mood or are feeling “down,” it might be work or emotional labor to raise your spirits before encountering your partner. If you’ve just had a bad day at work where you didn’t get a promotion, it would be considered self-management to train yourself to grin instead of launching into what a bad day you had. Just like the workplace, where we can lose our jobs if we lose our cool, emotional labor can have a substantial effect. Not only are there ramifications for our health, but unresolved and unexpressed grief over unrecognized labor can cause marriages to fail, Tessina warns.

“You control your reactions, they don’t control you.” —Tina Tessina, PhD, couples therapist and author

“Intimacy is usually easy in the beginning of a relationship, when euphoria sweeps you into emotional synchronicity,” she explains. “As the relationship matures, and the euphoria subsides into companionship, generating intimacy and sexual desire becomes harder. Learning to do the necessary work to keep your intimate connection going can make the difference between a successful relationship and a divorce.”

How to Get Out From Under the Weight of Emotional Labor

Whether you’re at work or at home, a certain amount of emotional labor is just going to be part of life—if only because we don’t need to wear our hearts on our sleeves at every moment. But that doesn’t mean you need to acquiesce to a life of making nice with nasty customers or grinning at your partner while inside you’re breaking down. When possible, Grandey says “deep acting” is a less harmful way of performing emotional labor. Although she admits it’s not always possible, this essentially means pretending to be an actor at your job. Instead of showing your true emotions, you work to align your internal feelings with organizational expectations. This, along with modifying one’s own stress via mindfulness training and the like, seems to help, she says. What’s more, Grandey recommends availing yourself to a back room for recovery breaks and being “real” with co-workers as much as possible as it “helps reduce the strain of surface acting with customers/patients.” For employers, she stresses allowing for autonomy and supporting employees as much as possible to reduce the strain of emotional labor. The best advice she can give a manager, she says, is to give employees the freedom to decide how they should respond to situations with customers or clients. And let’s face it: Incentives, especially financial incentives, can’t hurt, and Grandey’s research backs up the the benefit of incentivised rewards in helping balance the negative effects of emotional labor at work. Of course, there’s no amount of money that can make up for emotional labor at home. That’s where learning to take charge of your own emotions can be helpful. “You control your reactions, they don’t control you,” Tessina says. “When you’re too reactive to your partner, he or she can easily draw you into a fight that stops you both from focusing on fixing the problem. When you’re faced with an emotional situation, self-control is not easy. In the face of your partner’s actions, it’s difficult not to react.” The key is learning to stop and think, to respond thoughtfully and carefully rather than quickly and automatically. It takes practice. Tessina offers up these tips to take back your control and spend less time working on your emotions at home:

Use self talk wisely.

“Self-talk is one of the most powerful tools you can use to learn emotional self-control,” Tessina says. “Everyone has a running mental dialog, which often is negative or self-defeating.” Try repeating a mantra, an affirmation, or a choice over and over to create new pathways, which will eventually become automatic. “The new thoughts will run through your head like the old thoughts did, or like a popular song you’ve heard over and over,” Tessina says. “Only this song won’t be about your lost love, it will be about supporting yourself.”

Practice patience.

Of course, this is easier said than done, but step back. Think. Is that emotional labor you’re putting in really necessary? To be more patient, consider not only waiting to react but also making better use of your perspective. Do you really need to put on that fake smile? How about a little self-understanding? Why are you doing it? You may think it’s because your partner expects it or even that it makes you feel better, when in reality it only makes you feel worse in the long run. Your emotional labor may not be seen by others, but it’s important that you acknowledge the place it has in your life and understand the effect it has on your well-being.

Jeanne Sager
Jeanne Sager is a writer and photographer from upstate New York. She has strung words together for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and more.