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Are you taking on too much emotional labour at work?

Due to the stress of lockdown, we’re likely to be taking on more emotional labour at work than ever before. But what does this mean in practice, and how can we protect our mental wellbeing during this time?

One of the most challenging jobs I’ve ever had was working as a bartender. I loved the job itself – the bar was set by the waterfront, I had brilliant colleagues, and learning how to mix new drinks was fun.

But despite this, the work involved a huge amount of emotional labour on my part, and it took up a lot of energy. I had to have a smile pasted on my face for the whole of my 12 hour shift, even if I was tired, or run down, or didn’t particularly feel like smiling. I had to outwardly be the best version of myself at all times, even while fishing soggy cigarette ends out of pint glasses at 2am.

The job had a lot of physical demands, but it was emotionally exhausting more than anything else.

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When most of us hear the phrase “emotional labour”, we think of it as applying to our home lives, and the division of tasks such as remembering which day to take the recycling out, or when friends and family members have a birthday coming up. These tasks usually fall on women, and form an invisible – and therefore unnoticed – extra layer of responsibility to our home lives. 

Regardless of our profession, emotional labour is something that most of us will be familiar with in our careers.

But the phrase, which was coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1983, was originally intended to apply to our work lives, rather than the domestic.

“Emotional labor… is the work, for which you’re paid, which centrally involves trying to feel the right feeling for the job,” Hochschild explained in a recent interview with The Atlantic. “This involves evoking and suppressing feelings. Some jobs require a lot of it, some a little of it.

“From the flight attendant whose job it is to be nicer than natural to the bill collector whose job it is to be, if necessary, harsher than natural, there are a variety of jobs that call for this… The point is that while you may also be doing physical labor and mental labor, you are crucially being hired and monitored for your capacity to manage and produce a feeling.”

Regardless of our profession, emotional labour is something that most of us will be familiar with in our careers – and over time, performing emotional labour can take its toll.

One recent study found that faking positive emotions at work could have a negative impact on our wellbeing. The study found that those who hide their true feelings – people the researchers referred to as “surface actors” – could be putting themselves under a higher level of psychological strain compared to those who don’t. It also found that faking emotions at work was unlikely to boost your career – in fact, doing so could even undermine your chance for success.

A second study also found that women are almost 10% more likely than men to fake being happy at work. We’ve all heard the expression “fake it ‘til you make it” – but why is this so damaging for our mental health at work?

Many of us will already be dealing with an unprecedented amount of anxiety and fear relating to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Some work environments require us to express certain “appropriate” emotions, and to keep any emotions that do not “fit” with the environment out of public display,” psychologist Dr Rachel Allan tells Stylist. “This takes effort to manage, especially when there is a big gap between what is felt and what needs to be expressed.

“This disparity can have negative consequences for our emotional health. This is especially true if we are facing situations that trigger deep feelings of distress or vulnerability, but we are not able to show our emotions for fear that we would be seen as unprofessional, or not able to cope. If this extends over a long period of time, we risk becoming increasingly stressed, burnt out, exhausted and disengaged.”

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The concept of emotional labour seems especially important right now, when most of us will already be dealing with an unprecedented amount of anxiety and fear relating to the coronavirus pandemic, regardless of what happens during our working hours. 

So what can we do if we think performing emotional labour at work is damaging our mental wellbeing? Below, Dr Allan offers her advice.

How to tackle the thorny issue of emotional labour at work

“Naturally, our preferred state is to be authentic and genuine. It is therefore to be expected that having to hide our true emotions might generate a whole range of different emotions, including fear, shame and anger. In recognising this, we can have some compassion for ourselves when struggling with emotional labour. So my first tip for those struggling would be to go easy on themselves and remember this is a challenging situation.

“There is power in finding a space where you can express yourself openly and authentically. Being able to have honest conversations about emotions, stress and difficult experiences is essential when dealing with emotional labour.

“However, it is important to consider how and with whom those honest conversations take place. When we are stressed, and have felt under pressure to hide our emotions for extended periods of time, we can be at risk of ‘exploding’ and disclosing our true feelings in the wrong place or at the wrong time. Although understandable, this can have negative consequences for all concerned.” 

Remember: if you’re worried about taking on too much emotional labour at work, there are ways to counteract this. Head here to read our guide to talking to your manager about your mental health and wellbeing, and click here to read more advice about taking care of your mental health during lockdown. You can also visit mental health charity Mind’s website here.

This piece was originally published on 29 April 2020

Images: Getty, Unsplash

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