In recent years, we’ve started to see a shift in public discourse when it comes to various topics. Systems such as the patriarchy, white supremacy, neoliberalism and climate destruction have begun to receive more widespread attention than ever before (although this is really only just beginning: those who have been the most affected by these systems have been talking about the issues for years without receiving the attention they deserved). Alongside these developments we have also seen language change and new terminology introduced, which we might not have come across before. One phrase that has been used more frequently in recent years is emotional labour. As it’s currently mental health awareness week, I thought it may be helpful to dig a little more into this term, to help us further understand what it entails, and how we can be sensitive to it.
What does emotional labour mean?
The original definition of emotional labour generally refers to situations when someone needs to manage or suppress their own emotions while at work. For example, customer service and retail jobs require large amounts of emotional labour, as the worker has to appear happy for their shift, even when they’re having a bad day. This means that we can’t just look at physical labour when we think about jobs, we must take into account that many roles also require a lot of emotional labour. It’s an invisible but important work skill that requires more energy than we may realise, it’s simply relational instead of task-based. And often, this spills into non-work life too (but more on that in a minute).
Where did the term originate?
The term emotional labour was originally created in 1983 by the American sociologist Arlie Hochschild, when she wrote about the concept in her book The Managed Heart. In the book she refers to emotional labour as the need to ‘induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others’. She has since decribed it in interviews as work which involves trying to feel the right feeling for the job, with each job having varying emotional labour requirements.
This involves evoking and suppressing feelings… From the flight attendant whose job it is to be nicer than natural to the bill collector whose job it is to be, if necessary, harsher than natural, there are a variety of jobs that call for this. Teachers, nursing-home attendants, and child-care workers are examples. The point is that while you may also be doing physical labor and mental labor, you are crucially being hired and monitored for your capacity to manage and produce a feeling.
Hochschild also referred to some specific ways that we see emotional labour at play:
Deep acting, where a person works to place his or her private emotional state into one that is in line with what is socially acceptable for a given situation. That is to say, deep acting changes how you privately feel.
Surface acting, where a person puts on a face, essentially, and places his or her outward emotional appearance in line with what is socially expected or acceptable in a certain situation. In other words, surface acting changes your public display of emotion.
While deep acting is an intentional process to change how we feel inside in order to align with expectations at work, surface acting is merely changing how we appear despite our feelings. Both have the same objective, but generally, surface acting is believed to be more harmful to our mental health. An example of the difference can be seen in teaching. If students are disruptive and a teacher responds by internally repeating ‘I am a good teacher, I am positive, kind and calm with all students’, this is a form of deep acting that will affect their behaviour. If they act calmly externally but feel anger and hurt that they internally suppress, this is surface acting, which can become harmful to mental wellbeing.
However, what all of these definitions have in common is that they’re specifically focused on employees, with the workplace being the only context in which the phrase emotional labour is used. In modern conversation, this term has been expanded to mean other things too, which you may also hear in social justice conversations.
How has the meaning of emotional labour changed over time?
Since 1983 emotional labour has evolved to more generally encompass work that goes unpaid and unrecognised. Much of this is performed by women (for example managing a household, family, or relationship) which was brought to light by journalists such as Gemma Hartley in her 2017 piece for Harper’s Bazaar. Recent studies have also found that women in the UK are responsible for 60% more unpaid work than men, and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that people do more than a trillion pounds worth of unpaid housework annually.
Beyond the domestic world, emotional labour can also refer to the extra invisible work that marginalised people have to deal with while living within systems that oppress them:
In this case, it’s the more insidious, wearying work of having to pretend you’re not as bothered by microaggressions in the workplace as you really are – whether those aggressions are racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist… any situation where you feel like you’ve been stereotyped, or your identity has been attacked in some way, and you have to pretend that it’s fine.
In a recent interview, Arlie Hochschild expressed discomfort that emotional labour has expanded to include definitions that encompass all domestic tasks or female-oriented workplace requirements. To her, emotional labour doesn’t always go unpaid. Like manual labour, it can be a requirement of certain jobs so the ability to utilise it well can be used in exchange for wages. She also believes it isn’t explicitly gendered, as male workers have to perform emotional labour too. For Hochschild some things that have come under the umbrella of emotional labour are actually the mental load.
So how should we use the term?
Regardless of the academic origin as a tool for thinking about the workplace, we can’t deny that the definition of emotional labour has moved from simply describing managing one’s emotions at work to also including any task that affects our emotions, requires management of emotion, or puts a toll on our emotions, which includes work that takes place in our non-workplace lives.
Personally, I don’t think this is a bad thing. I understand the distinction of an academic term, but I feel the term emotional labour does a better job of capturing the truly draining effect, while mental load can feel a little more trivial (although this is just my personal opinion). Especially when it comes to people who are living within oppressive systems and still being oppressed, it’s only right that they should be able to use language that they feel more fully encompasses the weight of their experiences.
Hochschild’s larger argument is that, while she encourages exploration of this concept, by applying the term emotional labour too liberally outside of the workplace, we aren’t able to have productive conversations because we’re talking about different issues. I understand some of what she’s getting at; there will always be tasks in our domestic life which we aren’t paid for, so we can run the risk of making the notion too blurry if we simply put every piece of labour that isn’t paid into the category of emotional labour.
There’s a distinction to be made about the purpose of a task. Suppose the purpose of the task was to make your mother-in-law happy, and you’re paying a visit. You get in the cab, you ring the doorbell—that’s not emotional labor. But if your mother-in-law is extremely disapproving of you, and in the first five minutes you become aware of that again, and you’re having to defend your self-esteem against the perceived insult, that’s emotional labor.
She argues that mental work becomes emotional labour if it’s in some way disturbing to you or requires you to manage or suppress your emotions in some way. There are also ways that some of us might enjoy emotional labour:
If you’re the one that people are turning to for advice, chances are you’re good at giving advice. Chances are you’re gratified at being able to help people, and there’s nothing inherently alienating about being such a person. Do I want people to lean on me less? No, I don’t.
I think this is why we also need to understand why emotional labour is an extremely important topic of conversation when it comes to marginalised individuals. Existing within oppressive systems every day means that people of colour, people with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, plus size people and more are constantly having to suppress and manage their emotions.
“We police our language and behaviour, we take on roles of healing when supporting each other, and we carry the burden of educating in order to ‘teach’ or ‘explain’ what microaggressions are.”
For example, it’s well known that many black women feel the need to suppress true feelings, for fear of being seen as the “angry black woman” stereotype.
Carys Afoko, executive director of feminist organisation Level Up, explains to BBC Three: “Being a black woman means that emotional labour is expected of you in most situations, and also that you need to subdue your own emotions for fear of being read as aggressive or weak, or ‘crazy’.”
Hochschild’s idea of emotional labour is that it’s the work that requires emotion management. For people with less privilege, this emotional labour is a constant part of their existence in order to stay safe (for example, just think of all the ways black American parents teach their children to manage emotional responses in order to try and prevent being shot by police officers), or be listened to at all. If these people are also activists or educators in these spheres, (for example Rachel Cargle, Layla F. Saad or Yazzie from Stand For Humanity), then their work beyond education also encompasses extensive emotional labour of dealing with white fragility, stereotyping based on race/gender, online hatred and abuse, white centring and more.
How can we be sensitive to emotional labour?
How we respond to emotional labour is different depending on our position and the context we’re in.
If you are an employer I think it’s important to look into how you can look out for your employees’ wellbeing in regards to emotional labour. Employers need to recognise which areas of their employee roles require emotional labour (whether it’s in the management of emotion or dealing with emotionally draining circumstances), and look into ways that these can be mitigated, for example through implementing anti-racism training, committing to equality and diversity in hiring and management positions, including LGBTQ+ affirming policies into corporate structures, or teaching workers more on disability in the workplace, in order to actively combat microaggressions. When emotional labour is a specific part of the role, then those in leadership positions need to provide safe spaces and avenues for workers to express their true feelings when particularly difficult situations arise:
Simply asking the question: “Are you OK? Do you need time, a space or a person to talk to right now?” can go a long way to minimizing the effect of highly charged emotional labour…
Recognizing educators for their positive influence on students and colleagues can help them manage experiences with emotional labour. To care for their emotional well-being, providing them with some time, private space or access to a trusted colleague who will help them to “let it go.”
This will look different in each and every workplace, but leadership should be willing to actively engage with employees, either directly or through union representation, to understand the role that emotional labour plays in their jobs, and to actively seek out ways to manage it better.
When it comes to domestic life, Maddie Eisenhart found a way to effectively communicate and share the burdens of emotional labour equally in her marriage. I recommend you read her full approach, as it’s really interesting, but essentially it required a few key components. She started making all the ‘invisible’ tasks visible by writing out the mental to-do lists in her head. She refused to be an organisational middle man for things her husband could take responsibility for, she stood her ground whilst figuring out the difficult conversations and called things out frankly if they were unfair. And vitally, she learned to understand that her partner had different standards to her, and that was ok (if you want the chores shared equally you have to accept that your partner may not load the dishwasher in the way you like).
If you read this paragraph and felt like it doesn’t apply to you? Consider the possibility that your partner is taking on the brunt of the emotional labour in your relationship. Sit down with them and talk this through, and see if there are ways you can step up or more evenly spread the load, in order to make that balance more equal.
And ultimately, when it comes to the emotional labour that oppressed people have to deal with, those of us who hold more privilege can continually play a part in trying to ease that load. Whether it be through financially supporting activists or contributing funds to activism and the creation of safe spaces, asking our employers to implement policies that look out for those with less privilege in our workplaces, engaging in local activism ourselves, making sure we support progressive policies and political candidates, looking into ways we can use privilege we may hold to help our local communities, or committing ourselves to continue our education in these areas, even when it can be complex. Any way in which we can contribute to the dismantling of oppressive systems will also contribute to lessening the emotional labour that comes with being oppressed. There are many things we can do to try and decrease the emotional labour in others and, whether larger or smaller, they can all help to ease the burden.