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Why emotional labor in the workplace matters

A term that has gotten a lot of traction lately, not just due to the rise of feminism, is emotional labor. There are many jobs that involve a lot of positive emotions like being social, outgoing and hospitable. This is the most obvious form of emotional labor; for a receptionist it’s imperative to be warm, open, friendly and helpful, no matter how awful the morning started with horrendous traffic and a splitting headache. And nobody wants a cranky waiter at their table. However, emotional labor is involved in all jobs, albeit not always as obvious.

What is emotional labor

When its someone’s birthday, who thinks about the celebration, arranges a present and informs others to congratulate? It’s often the same coworker. Who makes sure that the new coworker is settling in, who is the one who asks about the weekend plans to the more introverted colleague? It’s often the same coworker. So what is emotional labor? It’s actually the unpaid labor, it’s the small things that often go unnoticed. It’s about the little things that are just being done in the workplace, like social chit-chat, creating a friendly atmosphere, having office celebrations, checking-in on new coworkers, birthdays and even doing a bit of cleaning up after office parties. There’s no full definition because it can be all of the above, but can also be applied to the person who always takes notes during meetings, always schedules the follow-up meetings or arranges the secret-Santa each year.

Who cares, anyway

It’s about those things which are usually in no-one’s job description (well some do, but that’s a whole different topic) but someone does feel responsible for. It’s about taking care of others, and investing your emotions. These things are unpaid, sometimes even unnoticed, but can be draining. Worrying about the well-being of others, ensuring someone will feel welcome when new  – it can all be very emotionally exhausting for people who feel it’s their role to do so. Not only does it take energy from you, it also costs energy when you consider the thought that otherwise no-one else is doing it. These concerns are another aspect of emotional labor. The thought that no-one will pick up these things when you don’t will also make people feel tired after a day at work.

It’s woman’s world

So after reading above, and you recognize your coworker (or even yourself), this person is most likely a woman. Why women do this, remains a combination of nature, expectations and also just the fact women are most often planners. It’s all these things and then some, and it’s not that they want to do all things things, but feel they have to. Not just because of the fear that these things are otherwise forgotten but also because they want others to feel happy, welcome or special. Like mentioned, what makes women the biggest group of doing unpaid work, are actually the women themselves. So what can you do to help your coworker who popped up in  your head while reading this? Why not take notes during the next meeting, or blow up the balloons or put on some happy music in the office for all to enjoy. But most of all, express appreciation, the best thing you can do is let this person know that you emotionally value their efforts.

Interested in learning about this and overall worklife things, listen to this podcast by Adam Grant. Want to learn more on how to maintain a healthy balance in the workplace where everyone feels like they have seat at the table as equals? Join our Art of Work session hosted with Homerun about Diversity and Inclusion. 

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