What Emotional Labor Really Means ─ And How To Empower Yourself Before You Burn Out

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What Is The Original Definition Of Emotional Labor? How To Deal With Stress At Work
Self, Health And Wellness

The idea of emotional labor is re-emerging in this time of #MeToo and #TimesUp, though the concept has been around for decades. Yet, what better time to clarify its meaning and relevance for professional work as a way to improve effectiveness and quality of life?

Emotional labor was first described in 1983 by sociologist Arlie Hochschild. As activists in a variety of social justice forums have since adopted and expanded it, the idea is often applied to a broad range of draining emotional demands. That includes requirements related to work, home, and how women, especially, are expected to communicate with others.

However, the original definition opens conversation across genders, benefitting a wider range of people. It also brings an awareness of how to make conscious choices about the style, meaning, and content of your actions, emotions, and words.

According to Hochschild’s original definition, "emotional labor" refers to managing and regulating one’s own emotions according to perceived, implicit, or explicit requirements of certain professions.

In a recent interview with The Atlantic, she spoke about how the concept is creeping into the idea of household work. As an example of its original meaning, she notes the way flight attendants are expected to smile and "be nicer than natural" in stressful situations ─ and other areas of employment that involve inauthentic demonstration of emotions and suppression of natural ones.

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Sadly, past examples of emotional labor keep repeating.

A related, but not uncommon, situation is described by author and religious historian Elaine Pagels in her recent personal history, Why Religion? Forced to accept a professor as her advisor for five years after he had exploited and molested her, she pretended everything was normal. I suspect one result was what I call the “smile mask” I used with one famous advisor for my PhD dissertation.

Since I had strong, mutually-respectful relationships with other professors, I had the luxury of eventually “firing” the man from my doctoral committee. Why? He had started writing about my topic on how people discover their capacity for courage. He also dominated meetings for “helping” me progress on the research with unproductive, repetitive discussions.

His behavior made me distrustful of any benefits from working with him. Although I was not paid for my work, my initial process of accommodation seemed similar to the smiling waitress who gets better tips and the well-credentialed consultant who appeases difficult clients to sustain a working relationship.

There is often tension between sustaining security and self-respect in the workplace.

I think that underneath the dynamic of behaviors related to emotional labor is the question of who holds the power. That’s often determined by the hierarchy in organizations and other social groups. Whether or not you think you have power, consider these five definitions adapted from management theorists:

  • formal or informal authority from a role or position
  • capacity to punish or withhold, used or not
  • expertise or doing something well
  • resources to reward others for accomplishments
  • inspiration and influence based on actions and abilities that elicit respect

Considering these examples — and any you add or adapt — how would you describe your own powers?

Also consider the strengths and value of your good relationships with others based on your integrity and capacity to inspire trust. Both contribute to informal power and influence, regardless of prestige and salary. In fact, even people with formal power are dependent on others, such as possibly you, to get work done effectively.

To empower yourself further, identify aspects of work you do that involve emotional labor or guarding how you express your emotions to conform to expectations. When you feel resentful, irritated or drained, such reactions may be clues that you’re suffering from the added burden of emotional labor.

Sometimes all that accommodation to suit others’ perceived needs and expectations can not only tire you, but also rob the authenticity that comes with comes from being true to yourself. After all, you’re not like the new type of robot designed for empathy that shows a different “personality” to fit each situation.

To free yourself from the conforming impulses of trying to please other people, ask yourself what you want and need. Then look for overlapping interests and motivations with colleagues, clients, and others. At least, make your interests and preferences clearer to recipients of what may be your emotional labor.

You may also benefit from reading The Power Manual by Cyndi Suarez, which offers insight on how to navigate the natural power imbalances present in certain relationships.

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Ultimately, a key to actual power and success is being true to yourself.

Among other strategies, one way of avoiding over-accommodation to others or to situations is to pay attention to your own behavior. Your smile muscles may feel locked in the mask I mentioned previously. Even the effort of empathy may be tiring when constantly required or expected.

Although empathy is one of the important soft skills now and for the future of work, it can be overdone. To avoid that imbalance, imagine how other people feel as well as ask them directly. By inviting them to describe their perspective and what’s concerning them, maybe what feels like a burden of emotional labor can be shared, lessened or ideally avoided.

Continue to find the middle ground between attending to others and to your own needs.

You may ask someone a direct question once some level of trust is established. Try or adapt this: "What do you think our common interests are?" Or, "How can we create a win-win outcome?" To start, try experimenting with your own versions of this approach in more personal or low-risk situations.

And here’s a hopeful trend related to men’s awareness of the demands and drains of emotional labor. About the same time as Arlie Hochschild’s work on the subject, Robert Bly’s Iron John: A Book About Men attracted attention. There is also a re-awakening to his ideas today.

According to a recent New York Times article, men are joining groups to get in touch with their feelings. For Robert Bly’s take on his idea, enjoy this eight-minute animation of the story about what can be missing in modern human beings’ development.

While you may not work with or even know men who are interested in such personal and professional growth, be on the lookout for both men and women who are self-aware about themselves at work and elsewhere.

The more you connect with people who do their own emotional work to unlock the power and potential of authentic expression, the less emotional labor you’ll be likely to do. Then, effective partnerships that benefit everyone will bloom further.

RELATED: 39 Best Quotes To Keep You Motivated (Or At Least Entertained) At Work

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Ruth Schimel, PhD, is a career and life management consultant and author of Choose Courage: Step Into the Life You Want and related handbooks. Visit her website for information about her practice and a free consultation offer and stay tuned for her forthcoming book, Happiness and Joy: Preparing for Your Future,

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