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How to talk to your boss about emotional labor

Effective strategies for discussing the invisible load you’re shouldering in the workplace.

How to talk to your boss about emotional labor
[Photo: Stepan Popov/iStock]

As the author of a book about emotional labor, I have a lot of conversations with women about how to make others aware of the additional work that they often end up doing. At the end of a recent talk, I got a question from a woman whose situation sounded all too familiar: She was catering to a team of men who didn’t realize how much they relied on her for work that wasn’t in her job description. Taking notes, carefully wording emails, soothing egos, curtailing disagreements, planning after-work activities, being available constantly—all of these things were taking a toll on her and cutting into the time where she could be doing her actual job.

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“How do I talk to my boss about this?” she asked.

If you are fed up with the invisible load you’re carrying at work—especially if your coworkers aren’t burdened with the same expectations—that doesn’t mean you have to stay stuck with this resentment. If you feel like you can’t set more firm boundaries regarding your emotional labor at work, chances are it’s because your company needs the skills of emotional labor you bring to the table. That’s fine, as long as you’re being fairly compensated for the extra workload, and it’s not causing you burnout. If that’s not the case, it’s time to speak up.

Recognize your contributions

Jacinta M. Jiménez, a licensed psychologist and board-certified executive leadership coach, recommends tracking your time during an average week to see how emotional labor is affecting your work hours. “This allows you to capture just how much effort and energy you may be putting into emotional labor and how this type of work may be detracting from the mental energy you could otherwise be doing for actual paid work.”

Before you move forward, you need to have a good sense of how much of this work you are doing, as well as how it is adding or subtracting value during your work. Once you have a more concrete view of the emotional labor you perform at work, bringing it up will be easier.

Advocate for yourself

Broaching the topic of emotional labor in the workplace is no easy task, but it’s one we must face if we’re to have our full contributions recognized and compensated. All those extra tasks add up and add value in ways that often go overlooked. In fact, as I listened to this woman talk about the emotional labor she performed daily, it sounded very much like she was the backbone of her team, constantly ensuring they didn’t veer off course due to glossed-over details or avoidable workplace drama. Her skills showcased vital attention to detail, team building and strengthening, and a big-picture view of upcoming projects. These are the kind of skills you need to highlight if you want your emotional labor to be recognized and valued.

“Given that emotional labor is likely a part of your job that is not listed in your job description, asking your boss to include this in your job description and future performance reviews is a first step. Doing this creates the space to acknowledge it as a formal function of your role,” says Jiménez. “People and workplaces thrive when employees can bring their whole selves to work. I recommend talking about emotional labor in connection to core business ROI by pointing out that creating emotionally supportive and inclusive employee experience is necessary for long-term engagement, retention, and performance.”

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Be intentional

That takes care of how to approach the topic of emotional labor in the workplace, so now the question is when to bring it up with your boss. In this regard, I often give the same advice that I give women who want to start a conversation about emotional labor with their partners at home: Don’t do it when you’re frustrated. Emotional labor at work can eat away at your time, your mental space, and your emotional energy—so bringing up the topic when you’re at the end of your rope is never a good idea.

“Figure out your objective before you meet with your boss,” says business coach Julie Melillo. “Do you want a raise, a promotion, to have others help deal with the difficult personalities at hand, or something else? Highlighting your interpersonal skills can help you make a case for all of the above, but you don’t want to meet with your boss just to brag about your great people skills—because that’s not really something people with great people skills would do.”

Spend some time reflecting on what you want out of this conversation. Think about the big picture and craft your talking points before heading into your boss’s office. If you don’t have a clear vision of what you want out of this conversation, you’ll just end up airing your frustrations without creating meaningful change.

Prepare to educate

“Keep in mind, many executives are not the strongest when it comes to interpersonal intelligence, so they may not understand or value the importance of your work in this area,” says Melillo. “You may need to educate your boss on this topic and perhaps show some statistics. The way people treat one another is a make-or-break for success in all areas.”

In short, be prepared to do a little emotional labor in order to get your boss to understand and value emotional labor. Jonathan Keyser, author of You Don’t Have to Be Ruthless to Win, says you should probably approach this conversation as the first of many.

“This is a process, not a onetime event, ideally achieved over multiple authentic, honest, and kind discussions,” says Keyser. “Many bosses need to be shown, not told. You can also bring data from reputable sources demonstrating the value [of recognizing emotional labor] and then explain how your excellence in this area has a direct correlation with the organization’s success.”

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The bottom line? Start the conversation. It will be well worth the effort to shift workplace culture to work for you.


Gemma Hartley is a freelance journalist and the author of Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward.

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