Emotional Labor: What It Is and Why It Matters

emotional labor

Work deadlines, money problems, family drama and health issues. We’re all familiar with the most talked about types of stress and even how to deal with them. But there’s one type of stress that’s long been overlooked, swept under the rug. It’s just as taxing as other types of stress and yet it’s only beginning to get its day in the sun. It’s called emotional labor.

Emotional labor defined

With the majority of nuclear households having two working parents these days, men and women are sharing more domestic responsibilities than ever.

Maybe you and your partner share kitchen duties. You cook, and he cleans. Maybe you’ve mastered tag-teaming kid responsibilities. You make lunches and handle drop off and he picks up and starts homework. Perhaps you even split laundry duties. But who plans the meals and makes the grocery list? Who signs permission slips and knows when play practice is? And who remembers Joey’s green shirt needs to be washed for spirit day on Friday?

These invisible, often thankless tasks are emotional labor, the cognitive work that goes into organizing and managing a household. It’s the reason some women refer to themselves as domestic CEOs. Sure, lots of men take on the role, but emotional labor traditionally, and still largely, falls squarely on the shoulders of women.

Other examples of emotional labor include:

  • Remembering loved ones’ birthdays and thinking up gift ideas
  • Anticipating how long groceries and home supplies will last and adding items them to the list before running out
  • Seeking out camp programs and childcare options for summer and other school breaks
  • Getting referrals to and researching doctors, dentists, hairstylists, dry cleaners, house painters, landscapers, pool cleaners — you get the idea
  • Scheduling doctors’ appointments, knowing everyone’s health history and maintaining vaccination records

Emotional labor at work

Emotional labor doesn’t just take place at home either. In fact, the term was coined in 1983 by the University of California, Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in her book The Managed Heart where she wrote about emotional labor as it applies to service industry workers like flight attendants and restaurant staff, who must hide their true emotions in order to carry out their job functions.

But women take on emotional work across all industries. They put together welcome packages for new hires, order cakes and shuttle cards around the office for birthdays and new babies, and organize things like holiday gift exchanges and casserole drop-offs for ill colleagues. In other words, they handle the tasks that make a workplace more than just a workplace. And they do it not because they’re paid extra to (they aren’t) or because they’re praised for it (rarely they are), but because they care.

Sharing the emotional workload

It’s tempting to dismiss emotional labor as “touchy-feely stuff,” but it’s vitally important to keeping relationships going and households and businesses functioning. In other words, somebody’s got to do it, and it often falls to the women. Girls learn emotional labor skills from a very young age and, in fact, children can identify stereotypical gender roles by age 3. But that doesn’t mean they should be saddled with the tasks for life. Just as with other areas of domestic labor, emotional work, too, should be divided.

Expressing gratitude

For partners, that means becoming more involved in behind-the-scenes tasks. Start by trying to anticipate needs around the house. Rather than waiting for “laundry day,” toss in a load when you notice the basket is getting full. Or wash that measuring cup you know will be needed to make dinner tomorrow instead of throwing it into a near-empty dishwasher that won’t run for two days.

Say it out loud

It also means recognizing and appreciating the lengths your partner goes to keep the household in order. Never underestimate the power of a simple “thank you for always making my dentist appointments for me.” Of course, there are other ways to express your gratitude as well.

In-home massage

Why not show your partner your appreciation with a home massage and then, to really take things up a notch, create a spa atmosphere at home so she feels like it’s a true getaway.

Happiness at work

Employers also should make sure emotional labor doesn’t go unnoticed. Check out these 18 Gestures That Make Employees Feel Appreciated for simple ideas you can implement today and consider adding new wellness perks to your employee assistance program that ease stress for all workers, emotional laborers included.

Of course, ladies, don’t feel you have to wait for your partner or employer to get on the emotional labor bandwagon. It may take explaining the concept and asking for help to get others to carry their share of the load. In the meantime, practice self-care by taking time to yourself each day, getting plenty of rest, nourishing your body with healthy and energizing foods, delegating to others and booking a relaxing massage.

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