IT often starts out small. You get asked to take notes during a meeting, even though it’s not really your job. Or people expect you to organize co-workers’ birthday parties in the office. Before you know it, your day is filled with tasks unrelated to your actual career.
Emotional labor, also called mental load, is the thankless day-to-day anticipating of needs and solving of problems large and small, and it’s mostly women who do it.
“It is the unpaid, often unnoticed work women do to keep those around them comfortable and happy,” says Gemma Hartley, author of the recently released book “Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward,” (HarperCollins) which explores how emotional labor affects interactions at home and at the office.
“Work puts unique challenges on our emotional labor because of power structures,” she says. “But it is a useful rubric for thinking about all of our undervalued emotional and mental obligations and commitments.”
What constitutes emotional labor?
The concept of emotional labor boils down to managing your emotions in order to do your job. Teachers do it. Doctors do it. Flight attendants do it. Anyone in the hospitality or customer service industry performs it.
“These jobs generally involve a great deal of emotional labor both in interactions with clients and with employers,” says Hartley.
Who’s stuck doing it?
“Women tend to spend a lot of time self-regulating their emotions and behavior in the workplace in a way that men don’t have to,” says Hartley. “Emotional labor is expected of women in the workplace. Women have to strike a balance between professional achievement and likeability in order to be successful, but often the emotional labor which factors into their likeability stymies their productivity and ability to achieve at the same level as their male peers. It breeds resentment and frustration.”
And why is that? Women are seen as caregivers at home and at work, says Jaime Klein, founder of Inspire Human Resources.
“This emotional caretaking can hijack a female employees’ day,” she says, “And you’re not getting an additional year-end bonus because you remembered everyone’s birthday.”
Are you doing too much?
If you find that you don’t have enough time to “work” at work, because small tasks and emotion work are constantly pulling at you, then that’s a big red flag, says Hartley.
Other red flags, according to Klein: feeling exhausted by Tuesday, looking tired, sending e-mails late at night or over the weekend and a spike in sick days. “This shows they don’t have strong time management or boundaries,” she says, adding that it makes it look as if they aren’t capable of getting their work done during core business hours.
How to stop it
If you find yourself carrying out the brunt of your team’s emotional labor, Klein suggests setting firm boundaries through your words and body language. If you’re always the one volunteering to help plan a party, simply stop raising your hand. And have a script ready in case people ask you directly: “I would love to help, but my inbox is so full, and I planned the staff birthday party last month.”
If someone stops by your office as you’re about to leave for the day, continue to pack up and make an appointment with them for the next day. “Be consistent,” she says. “If you tell people you need to leave at 5 p.m. every day to pick up your kid or care for an aging parent, but you stay one day until 5:10 p.m., people know that you’ll stay later.”
She also recommends refraining from answering emails, texts or messages after hours.
And if that doesn’t work, it’s time to go to HR and tell them that you’ve tried to set boundaries, but people still keep encroaching and you need to figure out how to put a stop to it.
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