The Hidden Reason Why Work Leaves You Feeling So Burnt Out

what is emotional labor

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The word “burnout” has become ubiquitous in the American workplace, especially in urban centers where overt competition and stress levels reach all-time highs. From working long hours to dealing with toxic work environments to lacking life balance in general, the majority of us have experienced at least one symptom of burnout thus far in our careers.

In fact, a 2017 study found that of the people who consider themselves to be at the start of a burnout situation, 65 percent of them often (or very often) feel run down and drained of physical or emotional energy. And a huge contributor to this type of burnout is something called emotional labor.

What Is Emotional Labor?

No matter what kind of job you have, chances are you’ve experienced emotional labor at some point. According to sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who coined the term in her 1983 book, “The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling,” emotional labor is the result of person’s need to regulate their emotions to satisfy those around them. Another way to think about it is the unpaid labor that goes unnoticed in one’s personal or professional life to keep those around them comfortable and happy. Still not clicking? It’s all the stuff that someone does for the betterment of others that no one else cares to see.

While these aren’t gendered definitions, years of subsequent research and experience have revealed that women bear the largest burden of emotional labor by a landslide. Blame it on societal and cultural norms, or look to our genetic instincts for rationale. But either way you spin it, tons of women are overloaded with emotional labor and it’s burning them out at alarming rates.

The first place that emotional labor is blatantly obvious is in the home environment. Gemma Hartley’s 2017 essay for Harper’s Bazaar titled “Women Aren’t Nags—We’re Just Fed Up” does a beautiful job of walking readers through real-life situations in which this kind of labor manifests itself despite the best intentions of both parties involved. Women, traditionally being the more “domestic” partner in a heterosexual relationship, have been taught and conditioned to anticipate and act on the needs of their partner and children before being asked outright to do so, which, in turn, makes them the default household managers. They do it all, all the time. That gets really freaking exhausting. And then, when they want a break, they have to ask for help because no one else in the room is doing those same things instinctively. And that ask in itself creates even more emotional labor, and so the cycle continues.

what is emotional labor

Reshot/Elaine Baylon

Emotional Labor At Work

This dynamic is not exclusive to one’s personal life, though. It very much permeates workplace boundaries as well. Sure, it can be gendered as women politely wash over a coworker’s flirty comment or do everything in their power to not make a snide remark after their male boss mansplains something ridiculous to them in the hallway. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be about gender roles at all (shoutout to all the female-driven companies out there). It has to do the hierarchical structure of the workplace, how the different personality styles navigate space with each other and what needs ultimately need to be met.

This emotional labor can manifest in a multitude of ways — some seemingly tiny, some seriously absurd, all harmful to your general well-being. If any of the following scenarios sound like something you face on a regular basis, then you’re doing a lot more emotional work while at the office than you probably think you are.

  • You’re expected to use emotion management skills in everyday interactions with your superiors or peers, such as disguising the fact that you’re frustrated or upset by something rather than being slightly disruptive to be forthcoming about the problem and then create a solution.
  • You fill your emails and chat messages with tons of emoji and exclamation points not because you’re overly excited, but because you’re afraid of being thought of as “not a team player” or “cold” if you don’t. Better yet, you spend excessive time rephrasing your messages so they come off “just right.”
  • You lend a listening ear to anyone and everyone who needs a vent session because it’s supporting their needs (as opposed to taking care of your own, which might require sitting alone for a while).
  • You wear your “game face” like a badge of honor all day long, no matter how rough of a time you may be having personally. You adopt the “fake it ’til you make it” mentality because it seems like that’s required in order to be valued and appreciated in your work environment.
what is emotional labor

Reshot/Olka Konecka

Why Emotional Labor Matters

It’s not that all situations that require emotional labor are necessarily bad or inappropriate. It’s that they accrue over time, sometimes gradually and other times so quickly you can’t seem to figure out why you suddenly feel like an exhausted shell of your former self. Because it’s invisible work, it’s genuinely difficult to track and, therefore, creating long-lasting change is the hardest part of the process. But for the sake of your mental health in everyday life, here are a few strategies you can try to lighten your emotional load at the office.

Check in with yourself every day. At the end of each workday, take a few minutes to sit with your thoughts and replay the day’s events. Assess how different interactions made you feel and see if you can pinpoint areas of greatest frustration, discomfort or struggle and ask yourself if they tie back to the concept of emotional labor. If they do, keep track of them so you can, over time, identify a pattern and ultimately determine what kinds of adjustments can be made so you don’t have to keep repeating the same situations over and over again.

Be mindful of how others behave around you and how that affects you. Do you have highly demanding and needy coworkers? Are you a people pleaser who avoids conflict like the plague? All of these factors play into your office dynamics and how you ultimately respond to different situations. When it’s a matter of your coworker’s behavior, ponder how you can adjust how you engage with them. When it’s a matter of your own needs and wants, challenge yourself to step outside of what feels comfortable to ultimately end up with what’s a lot less emotionally exhausting. Go with the short-term loss for the long-term gain.

Learn how to ask for help. Discussing emotional labor can feel like emotional labor in itself — especially with people who just can’t wrap their heads around this seemingly invisible problem. But it is always worth a try because if you don’t even try, there’s no way it’s going to get better. And from this conversation, you can begin to set your own boundaries out loud with the people that need to hear and acknowledge them. Letting others know where you stand, where you can help and where you’re the one who actually the needs help is key in creating that level playing field. We can’t promise that others will be empathetic and cooperative, but we can promise that taking control of your situation and attempting to do something directly will feel a lot better than just suffering in silence.


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