Emotional work at work, still hard.

“Emotional labor” was a Hot Topic a few years ago; the term was originally used to describe the work of managing personal feelings in a work context; then it was coined by a sociologist at Berkeley (why is it always Berkeley, I ask randomly) to describe this type of labor in a domestic context—like when people feel psychologically responsible for household tasks like cooking, cleaning, organizing, etc.

“Emotional labor” in the domestic context became such a Hot Topic because many people (mostly women) resonated with this phrase so deeply, right down to their very bones. And, by describing it as “labor,” people assumed that the phrase was used to describe something inherently bad. But the issue was not that emotional labor in and of itself was bad; the “badness” had to do with when there was a huge imbalance of who was doing the labor—like when one parent shoulders all the work of childcare and the other parent (if there is one) does much less. The imbalance of who does the emotional labor is what tends to generate deeply negative feelings of resentment and of not being heard or seen or appreciated.

Actually, I think the term was probably intended primarily as descriptive: as a straightforward reminder that emotional labor is a form of work just like any other work. Some work you enjoy, some you don’t. I think that cooking is work; I also enjoy it hugely. I don’t like any form of work that involves managing money, personal or professional, but I recognize that the work needs to get done, regardless of my feelings.

In the work context, emotional labor was often recognized as an important factor in customer-facing jobs where managing people’s emotions was actually part of the job. This is what customer service really is all about: your customer can’t walk through the doors of your establishment and be greeted by snarly, depressed-sounding people (my experience every time I walk into a Bed, Bath & Beyond, TBH), they are more likely to patronize your business if your employees project positive, upbeat emotions (which can get scary-funny if taken too far).

I think that emotional labor happens in every job, though, not just the customer-facing ones. I have worked with many people who text and call me for advice, regularly. They probably did this because they thought we were friends, apart from our work relationship. In many cases, I felt the same way, and I actively encouraged them to reach out to me, repeatedly. But in a handful of cases, I did not feel the same way, with the result being that the processing of their issues and the giving of counsel, on my part, felt like work. A lot of work, and not particularly enjoyable work, either.

Again, that’s an example of how emotional labor becomes a problem: when there’s imbalance. It’s one thing for me to give advice within the context of a relationship where there is both give-and-take; believe me, I have benefited enormously from and am grateful for advice and counsel from others. In some cases, that advice and counsel was compensated (like in a coaching relationship), in others, there was reciprocity (there was a “turn-about and fair-play dynamic” in our conversations when it came to discussing my issues or the other person’s issues).

Imbalance is likely a BFD when, if you are a BPOC, you are talking with your non-BPOC about racial justice, and vice versa. The micro-aggressions I’ve had to deal with in the workplace as a Korean-American person have been just that, micro. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for Black people to be faced with the emotional labor of dealing with their non-Black colleagues whenever violence against Black people happens in a very public manner. The choices, in those circumstances, must feel exhausting: do I try to carry on with my job and deal with the well-intentioned but often inevitably clumsy efforts of my colleagues to ask how I’m doing? Or do I just retreat? Can I retreat? Where?

I try not to beat up on my husband when I feel like the emotional labor in our marriage is getting out of whack; instead, I’ve learned to ask him for help in sharing the workload. We recognize, for example, that our nearly grown-up kids are much more likely to come to me to talk through something that’s troubling them, simply because I talk a helluva lot more than he does. Instead of feeling resentful about that (I used to feel that way, I’ll admit), I will instead find ways to give him an entry point so he, too, can share in the work. As I said earlier, just because it’s work doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable: it is a privilege to be held in such close confidence by our children, and when I don’t allow him to share in that privilege, he’s missing out on the rich and wonderful experience of fully appreciating the remarkable people our kids have turned out to be.

In work contexts, my main plea would mainly be for greater awareness of the emotional labor you are asking people to do on your behalf. Some more specific thoughts on this:

  • If you rely on a few people you work with for advice and support and comfort, I would occasionally check in with them on whether their needs are being met by you or by others. They may be fine with the way things are; they also may not rely on YOU for emotional support. But some recognition of the service they are providing you by processing and listening to your feelings would not come amiss, I think.
  • If you are in a management position, I think there might be a bright-line rule that you should not rely on your direct reports to do emotional labor on your behalf. I will come clean and say that I learned that the hard way. I am an over-sharer by nature, which is linked to my tendency to speak honestly on all things. While colleagues have occasionally appreciated this trait of mine, (because I’m not that hard to figure out), it has also caused them undue stress, to have to deal with MY stress. In effect, confiding in my direct reports about shit that was going on with me or elsewhere in the organization was asking them to add an extra job duty to their already-lengthy list of job responsibilities. And it can have a toxic effect on others outside of the people you’re confiding in.
  • What do you do, then, if you’re a human being and you’re in a management position and you need to talk through your issues to get advice and support? Gifted managers and leaders I’ve known have told me that they have at least one confidante to rely on in the organization, and that this function is built into the confidante’s job description. (The job title, “Chief of Staff,” or “Special Assistant,” always struck me as likely candidates to perform this function.) And, just like there are professionals for imbalance in one’s personal life (therapists) and one’s marriage (couples counselors), there are also professionals for employees (coaches), and if your organization supports this as a leadership development (which they should), and my experience with them has been hugely positive and valuable.

I have an innate desire to not just work, but to do good work; in the communications and writing contexts, that means writing words that make people’s hearts sing, and creating plans and strategies that illuminate clear paths forward through complex and sometimes murky landscapes. I also want to bring that same standard to the emotional labor I do on behalf of my family, my friends, and my colleagues and I can’t do that if there’s a huge imbalance of emotional labor in the relationship. This may have been just a big note to self.