WELLNESS-A teacher spends their day working with special needs students. They go home to find out their partner has had a bad day and unloads on them.
Later on, they field a phone call from a friend who is going through a nasty divorce and has no one else to lean on. By the time they go to bed, they’re exhausted, and their mind won’t stop churning. They’re suffering from an emotional labor overload.
The term emotional labor comes from The Managed Heart, a 1983 book by sociologist Arlie Hochschild. It describes the work of flight attendants and bill collectors to consciously regulate their own feelings and attempt to shape the emotions of others to get their jobs done.
This principle is applied to multiple aspects of our lives — call center workers using emotionally connective techniques to talk customers through understanding a bill that’s higher than they anticipated, parents tending to their child’s emotional needs, spouses supporting their partner through a difficult time at work. Emotions are the materials used to achieve the goal. For the call center worker, empathy is used as a technique to retool the customer’s anger into a feeling of camaraderie. They convince customers that they’re on the same side, and once the transformation is complete, the real work of addressing the bill can begin. It is an active technique of problem-solving, and it is exhausting.
For a person who typically takes on the emotional labor in any relationship, whether it’s work, a friendship or a romantic relationship, emotional labor fatigue can lead to burnout that damages the relationship — sometimes permanently. For people with emotional labor-intensive jobs, like social workers, psychologists or rescue workers, the danger of burnout is very real and comes with big consequences. In the workplace and in the home, allocating your emotional labor is an important key to life balance and, ultimately, happiness.
Traditionally, women in the home carry the burden of emotional labor. They listen to their partner talk about their day at work and help them emotionally rationalize workplace frustrations so that they can continue to go to work day after day.
Often, men aren’t taught to examine and work through their emotions and vulnerabilities the way women are. This pattern is heavily scrutinized — it’s been the subject of a lot of conversation about patriarchy, dismissiveness of emotional work, and problem-solving in the home.
Women are taught it’s their job to manage the emotional labor in the home, as well as acting as the guiding hand, the font of wisdom, the bosom to cry on. When one member of the household is consistently pressed to deal with the emotional workload, it can lead to resentments, outbursts of bottled-up frustrations and arguing.
It is important, therefore, to have conversations about the burden of emotional labor in the home. Without that balance, spouses and partnered couples run the risk of feeling overwhelmed, overburdened, unheard and unappreciated. Talk about the emotional workload, and the skills used to handle emotional labor — like active listening for comfort, instead of problem-solving.
It’s not just romantic relationships that can burden people with emotional labor — any kind of relationship can be a stressor if the give and take aren’t equal. Toxic friendships, where the relationship is more take than give, can be draining and incompatible with a balanced life. When a friendship is all about soothing one person or feeding their emotional needs at the expense of yours, it’s best to have a heart-to-heart. If that doesn’t work, a break — or break up — might be needed.
A manager notices one of their employees isn’t making productivity requirements. They pull the employee into a meeting to talk and find out the employee is struggling due to a life-or-death medical concern. The manager works with the employee to try to find a way for them to keep working in a way that allows them to care for themself. Later that night, the manager can’t eat and struggles to sleep. They can’t stop thinking about that employee. They can’t set aside the emotional component of their work labor.
Anyone who works with people will, inevitably, deal with emotional labor. Some jobs are more challenging than most. Social workers, for example, face a multitude of stressors — emotional labor is one of the biggest of these. For jobs where burnout not only affects the life of the employee, maintaining a work-life balance not only helps the employee but those in their care. Helping oneself is essential to helping others, according to the University of Nevada, Reno.
How can you tell if that work-life balance is out of whack, causing the emotional labor to spill into other aspects of life? Improper eating habits, lack of sleep or bad sleep, anxiety, fixation on work, neglecting personal life or loved ones are all indicators.
When that balance is lopsided and emotional labor is too intense to handle, a few key strategies will help people cope. Take stock of yourself and your feelings. Be honest about how you’re doing. If the answer is not good, prioritize structure to keep yourself in check. Make a realistic schedule with goals to ensure breaks when you need them and time to decompress. Taking a break — whether it’s a short breather at work or a vacation — is essential to keep from feeling overwhelmed. Use your available resources at work. Chances are management is familiar with the problem and might have guidance. Lean on those resources and accept help.
One of the dangers of reallocating emotional labor is the guilt we feel at handing our perceived duties to someone else. Moms often feel the need to be the emotional center of the household, and forgoing those responsibilities can feel like neglecting the ones they love. Friends might feel like a bad person for taking a step back from a relationship that grows more toxic and stressful by the day — especially if the other person genuinely needs help.
In the end, the most important thing a person can do is to think about emotional labor in terms of a plane crash — put on your oxygen mask first, and then you’ll be able to help others.
(Luke Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.