Feelings are hard work—if the past year has taught me anything, it’s that. And the work of managing feelings is an important part of many jobs. One of my professors used to call that “emotional labor.”
The term “emotional labor” was first published by Arlie Russell Hochschild in 1983. She defined it as labor that “requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.” The way I think about it is: putting resources into guiding the emotions of myself and others.
Therapists and other healthcare professionals are clear examples of emotional laborers. Communications professionals, educators, and public administrators all perform a lot of emotional labor as part of their day-to-day work. Every day, I watch my customer support team at Zapier balance emotional labor (in the form of empathizing with our customers) with rational labor (in the form of solving users’ technical issues).
Why emotional labor matters
When we step back and look at it, it’s clear that we’re all doing emotional labor. We do it instinctively and may not even realize it’s happening.
But on a practical level, I think you need to account for emotional labor when you’re planning a project, initiative, or function at work. Emotional labor requires resources, and failing to account for it means you’re likely to misjudge your time bank, and monetary budget. You also risk exhausting your and your team’s energy reserves, as everyone will have to step up and handle more labor than was initially planned.
On a personal level, that last point is even more critical. When you ignore the emotional labor you’re doing, you risk burnout. You need to be aware of how much energy you’re putting out there. Taking care of others is important work, but your brain’s neurochemical reserves are finite. They require replenishing, just like your body’s nutrients.
How to “feel” better
So! How can you better account for emotional labor? The good news is you’ve already started. Just by being aware that emotional labor exists, you’re better able to recognize it. By having a term for it, you can discuss it with your colleagues. By understanding its role in your work, you can list it as a priority.
Sounds a bit simple, right? Well, let me ask you this: how do you plan for rational labor? Is it by respecting the resources that go into it? By talking about it openly in planning sessions? By putting it as a priority on Kanban boards? All of those same approaches apply to emotional labor. You just have to get used to conceptualizing it.
That will also help you notice the emotional labor folks do for you. When your manager coaches you through a tough problem, they’re doing emotional labor. When your loved one drops what they’re doing to focus on your needs, they’re doing emotional labor. When a shop clerk remembers your name, they’re doing emotional labor. By recognizing this, you can be more intentional around your implicit requests for emotional labor and the need for you to reciprocate.
Make emotional labor automatic
One way my team automates emotional labor is with emoji check-ins. I have a bot that sends an emoji form that asks about the past week at work. A second bot adds the emoji as a talking point to our next one-to-one meeting. Both the bots and the routine are ways of automatically performing emotional labor. This practice borrows from a common counseling practice of using standardized instruments to track mood over time.
A lower-tech way my team automates emotional labor is with goal-setting. We’ve made it a habit to hold weekly reviews of our quarterly goals. Because it’s a habit, it’s like biological automation: repeatedly doing something strengthens connections in the brain. By practicing something, you start to automate the way you think.
One way I automate my own emotional labor is with the help of the lights in my home. They’re WiFi-enabled and can change colors, so I’ve built out a system that changes their colors based on what I’m supposed to be working on at any given time—literally changing my environment around me. That makes context-switching (a common form of emotional labor) much easier since I’m training my brain to respond to the change. It also alleviates the need to watch the clock.
These specific workflows help my team and me stay grounded. More than that, they’re examples of a larger philosophy. At some point, every endeavor needs to scale up. That includes the work we put toward our feelings. By automating emotional labor it becomes more sustainable and allows more folks to access it.
Understanding emotional labor isn’t hard, but developing emotional skills is a lifelong process. Take this minute to reflect on the emotional labor going on around you right now. Ask your team about the “feelings work” they’re doing, and brainstorm some better approaches. Lots of emotional labor can scale and be automated, so look for ways to make it happen. Add emotional labor to your planning and check-in processes to help build a better team.
By doing all of that, you’ll contribute more effectively. If you’re already amazing with emotional labor, it’ll help you scale up your greatness to help more people. If emotional labor’s not on your radar, you can add a new dimension to the work you’re doing. Building good systems around any kind of work increases productivity. With something as high-impact as emotional labor, the potential rewards are much greater.