The Invisible Work: Exploring Emotional Labor

Do you ever feel like you’re solely responsible for all of your coworkers’ emotional regulation and well-being? Emotional labor is unpaid and unseen work that falls mainly to marginalized groups. While emotional labor is present in our personal and social lives, I will focus on what it looks like in the workplace. 

What is Emotional Labor?

Have you ever heard the expression “fake a smile”? It’s a great jumping-off point to explain what emotional labor means. The emotional labor definition is the expectation that we will conform to the expectations of our employers, even when it comes to our emotions. 

While it is often attributed to customer-facing roles, education, healthcare, and hospitality, it affects every industry. Emotional labor requires all of us to be actors. Simply put, emotional labor is suppressing your emotions to display feelings that are more palatable to the workplace situation. 

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Who Coined the Term “Emotional Labor”?

“Emotional labor” is a phrase that was coined by Arlie Hochschild in 1983. In her book “The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling,” she described the concept and how it relates to employees’ efforts to meet the emotional demands of their careers. She talked at length about managing emotions to appear more amicable and supportive toward various stakeholders, including customers and clients. 

In the book, Hochschild, a respected sociologist, pointed out that emotional labor is most often expected of and performed by women. She also explored the impact of this kind of labor on personal lives. It is challenging to turn feelings on and off, and so many women found that their work feelings were invading their personal emotions. 

“The Managed Heart” is still highly regarded as an influential book in sociology. The book examines gender roles in the workplace and the impact of capitalism on emotional expression. 

Examples in the Workplace

The first and most obvious example is when a customer is disrespectful and rude to an employee. The employee is expected to suffer the abuse while maintaining a positive and pleasant demeanor with the customer. The customer is always right, and this philosophy can damage the representative putting in the emotional labor. 

However, customers aren’t the only stakeholders in most businesses. Many of us have been forced to sit through uncomfortable business dinners where the alcohol flows freely, and unnecessary comments are made about us. Maybe the comments are about our appearance, our positions within the organization, or something else entirely. I once sat across the table from a partner that, with a completely straight face, told me, “Women rule the world now.” I could tell from the partner’s tone that not only did he believe that we were living in some dystopian matriarchy, but he found it distasteful. 

As the only woman present at that dinner, everyone at the table watched for my reaction, and I performed my emotional labor without missing a beat. I hid my anger and my disgust for this insufferable man. I smiled and tapped my glass to his as if toasting to the new world order where women were in charge (oh, the horror!). Somewhere deep down inside, I was screaming. It was no surprise that later he sent one of his employees to me to ask for the addresses of the two male colleagues that had joined me during this dinner so that he could send them gifts. Once again, I faked a smile flawlessly. Instead of calling the partner out for treating me like a secretary instead of an executive, I provided the addresses as requested. I’m still waiting for my gift basket. I bet it will be filled with microaggressions. 

Other emotional labor examples in the workplace include: 

  • Always being the one to set up meetings, or schedule events, i.e., becoming the default secretary. 
  • Being expected to regulate and manage the emotions of all groups and individuals within the organizations at all times.  
  • Acting as an unofficial psychiatrist to counsel bosses and colleagues. 
  • Laughing at inappropriate and unfunny jokes because the assumption should always be that everyone is well-intentioned, even if that isn’t true. 
  • Any expectation that the emotional health of the organization/CEO/team comes first and foremost. 
  • The entire concept of “service with a smile.”
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The Gender Gap 

The vast majority of emotional labor falls on women in any workplace. Arlie Hochschild cited that in her book, where she defined the term. She knew back in 1983 that it was a problem and was part of identifying how gender norms played out in the workplace. The idea is that women should have more emotional intelligence than men do. Thus it is expected that we will carry the burden of emotional labor. 

The issue of gender gaps in emotional labor goes far beyond the workplace and likely started when we were little girls, with probably little to no knowledge of the C-Suite or girlbossing. Girls are socialized to be nurturers from the time they are handed their first dolly. We are expected to be caring and sweet as children, while boys are encouraged to be aggressive and competitive. This idea of gender norms carries over into adulthood, where women are looked to when caring for children or other family members. Women often find themselves balancing careers and a household, the latter being a full-time job within itself. With these impossible expectations, it should be no surprise that our bosses expect us to be naturally better equipped to handle emotional labor at work. 

Historically female-dominated fields like healthcare, education, and customer service demand even more emotional labor than most other industries. Even in these fields where we find a more significant percentage of women employed, most hold the lowest-paid positions with little to no control over leadership. 

Because of all these factors, emotional labor often falls to women and rarely men in the workplace. Women are expected to provide this labor without higher pay or even recognition. Emotional labor is genuinely invisible and unpaid and could very well be why we are currently seeing an influx of women leaving leadership positions in 2023. 

Additionally, women of color are disproportionately affected by the demands of emotional labor in the workplace. The burden of navigating intersecting systems of oppression and discrimination will amplify the consequences of emotional labor. 


Why is Emotional Labor Important?

Emotional labor may seem insignificant, given how undervalued it is in our working culture, but it is vital to any successful organization. Interpersonal skills are still needed to navigate any workplace. Computers haven’t taken over yet, meaning people are still required to perform tasks and duties to further any company’s goals. Generally, people don’t work in a vacuum, and it is a natural human need to feel supported by those around us, including managers and colleagues. Happier employees equal better outcomes for both organizations and individuals. 

 Here are some reasons why emotional labor is essential: 

  • Customers are typically the major stakeholder of any company, and showing empathy and compassion to those who are paying the bills is important. 
  • Building trust and rapport with your colleagues, partners, customers, and clients will improve workplace culture and foster a positive employee experience.
  • Managing conflicts requires emotional labor to de-escalate tense situations. 
  • Improving employee well-being by setting appropriate boundaries (and sticking to them!) can help to reduce burnout for everyone involved. 

Successful businesses can’t operate without some degree of emotional labor. If it is neglected, the corporate culture will become chaotic, and good, hardworking employees will leave to pursue other opportunities. 

Emotional labor is undeniably crucial in the workplace, but that is no excuse to assume that women will automatically take on this additional burden alone. 

How Womens’ Career Trajectories Are Impacted

We’ve seen “The Great Resignation,” but get ready to embrace the new trend, “The Great Breakup.” Women are leaving leadership roles in droves at a much greater rate than men are leaving similar positions. 

Women are often already relied on to do the majority of unpaid labor in their homes, and adding unpaid labor in the place that is actually supposed to supply them with a paycheck is nothing short of an insult. On top of being responsible for emotional labor and DEI initiatives, women experience frequent microaggressions. Female leaders are often mistaken for junior employees and must face all this with grace, compassion, and, most importantly, a smile. 

How on Earth can women be expected to do all of these things and maintain any semblance of sanity? The answer is that they can’t, and so they are moving on to new opportunities, hoping for a better culture and a sense of work-life balance. It will be interesting to watch this movement and see how it evolves. I’m personally very excited to see an avalanche of women-owned and operated businesses pop up. Only time will tell where “The Great Breakup” is leading us. 


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Strategies for Balancing Emotional Labor Across Genders

It’s never too late to reverse course and consider strategies for balancing emotional labor across genders. As we’ve established, it is integral to any healthy workplace culture and can lead to employee satisfaction and reduced burnout. These are great things to aspire to! Here are some helpful suggestions for improving how your organization handles emotional labor. 

  • Recognition is the most critical step to improving the culture. Let’s remove that invisibility cloak right now and recognize emotional labor for its important contribution, regardless of gender.
  • Create a supportive corporate culture. Outward support of emotional labor and the vocal recognition of its importance can go a long way in helping men take a more proactive approach. 
  • Reward emotional labor! That’s right, I said it. Emotional labor is labor, and in the workplace, you are typically paid for that. 
  • Challenge stereotypes at every turn. It may feel comfortable to stick to what you know, but growth never happens without a little bit of discomfort. Encourage men to actively engage in emotional labor and women to pursue leadership roles. 
  • Provide psychological safety and open communication. If employees feel safe enough to discuss the distribution of labor openly, constructive conversations can be had about how to move forward without anyone having to experience burnout.
  • Supply ample training on emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, expressing empathy, and listening skills. 

Traditionally women have provided most of the emotional labor in the workforce, but with “The Great Breakup” upon us, times are changing. Organizations must change with the times to retain talent and prevent burnout. Implementing these basic strategies could make a world of difference to all employees and reinforce health and happiness among corporate cultures. 

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Founder of Girlboss Burnbook

Hey there! I’m Jenna, the founder of The Girlboss Burnbook. My mission is to support women feeling isolated in their leadership roles. After leaving the corporate world, I realized many women face the same struggles I did. I wanted to create a platform where we could share our stories and empower each other.

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