What Is Emotional Labor and Why Is It Important?

McKenna Princing Fact Checked
An illustration of a Black woman struggling under the weight of home and work responsibilities.

Imagine this scenario: You’re a Black woman minding your own business at work when your white co-worker comments on your hair and how it changes all the time. They keep prodding you for information and you find yourself pressured to explain protective styles (something your co-worker could have Googled).  

Here’s another scenario: You’re a woman who has spent all day caretaking for your children and elderly mother plus doing errands and household chores, and you’re tired. But when your husband comes home he spends an hour complaining about problems with one of his co-workers without even asking how you’re doing. You explain that you don’t have the energy to have this conversation now but he is dismissive of your needs. 

If you’ve ever been in situations like these, then you’ve experienced what it’s like to unwillingly do emotional labor.  

The term has become more popular, but what exactly does it mean and how can you deal with it? Here’s what you need to know. 

What is emotional labor? 

The traditional definition of emotional labor comes from a 1985 book by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, according to Yuying Xie, a PhD student in geography at the University of Washington who studies labor, feminism, race and ethnicity and has done research on emotional labor. 

“Emotional labor refers to the process by which workers manage their feelings in accordance with the expectation of jobs which usually have organizationally defined rules and guidelines,” she says.  

A classic example is someone who works in the service industry having to force a smile when a customer is being rude to them.  

There are many other ways managing, suppressing or faking your emotions can impact you and your work, though.  

“I like to think more broadly about emotional labor at work as managing one’s own emotions and/or the emotions of others in order to effectively complete work and meet workplace role expectations,” says Doyanne Darnell, a psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the UW School of Medicine. 

Although the term was coined in the workplace, it is increasingly popular for people to talk about emotional labor in other contexts. Common examples might be putting a lot of time and effort into helping a friend with their problems, doing most of the work during family holidays, or dealing with microaggressions in social settings. (Of course, microaggressions often happen in workplaces, too). 

Why is emotional labor important? 

Emotional labor is important because it is a common and often demanding part of work. A problem arises when emotional labor is undervalued or not recognized as a unique part of one’s job and is inadequately compensated or accounted for in workloads, which is common. The concept resonates with many workers, particularly those in jobs like the service industry and healthcare. 

During the pandemic, this topic is more important and relevant, Darnell explains. For instance, healthcare workers who have been on the front lines of the pandemic must manage their own anxiety about COVID-19 in the workplace as well as cope with the added stress among co-workers and patients who are also anxious about coming into the healthcare setting.  

Add to that staffing shortages due to COVID-19 infections and the impact of the Great Resignation, and healthcare workers are asked to take on even greater workloads, including emotional labor.  

“This is a recipe for burnout — the increased demands of emotional labor can be overwhelming,” Darnell says. 

Yet, if so many workers recognize the value of emotional labor, why don’t employers? According to Xie, many actually do — they just don’t want to pay for it. 

“Employers fully understand that good service work encompasses far more than some seemingly simple activities that they dismiss as easy and straightforward. So why is emotional work still devalued? I think it is simply because such devaluation successfully helps employers hide the profit they gain from the workers, it helps maintain low pay for service workers and it helps extract value from the labor of their employees,” she explains. 

American culture is driven by masculine norms, such as the obligation to suppress and dismiss our feelings particularly in public settings, which also makes emotional labor a feminist concept, Xie says. 

“I think the concept of emotional labor is also important because it means we are pressed to acknowledge the value of emotional labor by talking about it and discussing it in both private spheres and public workplaces. Through such discourse, we have the chance to picture a world that values an individual’s emotion,” she says. 

Who does more emotional labor? 

“I don’t believe there is anyone not doing emotional labor at work, but how much there is to do, how demanding it is and how evenly distributed among workers it is varies widely,” says Darnell. 

Research has regularly shown that women do more — and are expected to do more — emotional labor than men. This is particular of Black, Indigenous and People of Color, both Xie and Darnell say. 

“Not only will people of color face the usual sources of emotional labor, but on top of this, they will face racist behaviors and micro or macroaggressions and have to manage the hostile emotions coming at them from others as well as manage their own emotional experience and reaction,” Darnell explains.  

Xie adds that some BIPOC women also are more likely to face added stressors such as having a lower socioeconomic status or dealing with gender-based violence such as domestic violence, which add an additional burden. 

The way emotional labor is gendered shows up also in the type of jobs that women are highly represented in, such as teaching, nursing and childcare services, as well as the extra work women often end up doing in the workplace, such as planning after-work birthday celebrations or retirement parties or lending an ear when a distressed co-worker needs help. 

How do you know if you're doing emotional labor? 

At work, emotional labor can manifest in many ways: creating positive emotions in colleagues or customers (or diffusing negative ones), managing your own emotions about work or other life stressors, helping out colleagues who are emotionally struggling, and dealing with discrimination.  

In more personal settings, emotional labor may look like trying to create a positive environment on a vacation with family or friends, showing up for a loved one who is struggling with their mental health, helping friends solve problems, or trying to defend your political views to relatives who aren’t amenable to listening. 

Of course, these are just a few examples, and what emotional labor looks like for you depends on your work situation, boss, colleagues, workplace culture, friendships, family dynamics and your own experiences. 

While it is normal to do some amount of emotional labor, and it may even be a valued and enjoyable part of one’s job, doing too much emotional labor can show up as feeling burned out, overworked, undervalued or underappreciated (or not valued or appreciated at all).  

“A simple question you can ask yourself is, ‘Is there any emotional discordance between my actual feelings and the emotion that I am required and expected to express? Does this discordance impact my physical and mental health?’” Xie says. 

“Emotional labor can affect our mental and physical health because it can add stress to our workload; it takes effort. And it is critical to remember that emotions themselves are physical experiences, resulting in physiological changes. Over time, the stress of emotional labor can show up in our bodies,” Darnell says. 

Doing too much emotional labor can be taxing on the body, too, and result in things like difficulty sleeping, stomach and intestinal problems, chronic pain, headaches, muscle tension and high blood pressure, as well as making someone more susceptible to depression and anxiety. Experiencing these things can also make it difficult to show up and be present for family and friends.  

What to do if you’re emotionally exhausted 

“First and foremost, we must recognize when we are doing emotional labor and validate that it is a real part of our workload that is adding to our exhaustion,” says Darnell.  

Recognizing when you’re doing emotional labor and that it is work that has value can help you counter feelings of self-doubt or imposter syndrome, advocate for yourself as an employee and foster a practice of showing yourself compassion during periods of high stress.  

Darnell adds that there is a difference between emotional labor and abuse in the workplace, and that the latter is not something that simple tips (such as those below) can fix. If you are being harassed or otherwise abused at work, you should confide in and seek help with a mentor, trusted colleague, your supervisor or human resources. 

Tune in to your physical experience 

As Darnell said, emotional labor is also physical. Pay attention to how it shows up in your body: Do you feel tense? Have trouble falling asleep at night because you’re ruminating? Have a hard time focusing at work?  

If you notice you’re having negative physical experiences, take a moment to be mindful of how those things feel and where they’re affecting your body. Don’t judge them, just acknowledge them.   

After you recognize what you’re feeling, you can move on to strategies to reduce those feelings, such as deep breathing, meditation or a full mindfulness practice. If you prefer to do something more active, you can take a short break and go for a walk, listen to music or a podcast you enjoy, or talk with a friend. And if you can’t stop working just yet, switch to a task that requires less emotional labor.  

It’s important to take care of your body overall, too, not just in stressful moments. If you’re making time for movement, eating nutritious food, getting enough sleep and staying hydrated, you will be in a better position to deal with stress when it does come your way. 

Learn how to say no 

If you’re starting to feel bogged down by emotional labor, one strategy is to learn how to start saying no to others. This is especially important for all the people pleasers out there. 

Obviously, saying no doesn’t work in every situation. If your boss specifically asks you to attend a meeting you know is going to be draining, you probably can’t just refuse.  

There will be times when you can, though, such as declining that invite to an after-work event or consulting on a project you know nothing about.  

To get better at saying no, Darnell recommends practicing. Get a friend or co-worker and have them pretend they’re your supervisor, then rehearse what you plan to say.  

If you’re still hesitant, it could be because you feel like your values — of being a good employee and being good to yourself — are being pitted against each other, Darnell says. In this case, you might need to do a deeper dive into your feelings, what’s important to you and possible solutions for balancing these competing needs. 

People tend to catastrophize, which means imagining the worst possible outcome for a situation. Ask yourself how likely your worst imaginings are. For example, will you really get fired for asking your boss for that day off or for a lighter workload? Probably not. 

Even if you can’t say no directly, you might be able to negotiate. If you know you’ll be tired after that long meeting, ask your boss if you can skip the recurring meeting you usually go to that day.  

Learn emotion regulation skills 

Emotion regulation means being able to manage your emotions. It is a set of skills that can be improved upon with practice and includes understanding what is causing the emotion, reducing the intensity of the emotion (if that is needed), and learning how to respond most effectively to an emotion. 

The first step in emotion regulation is to acknowledge and accept your emotion. So, what it shouldn’t do is make you feel like you aren’t allowed to feel or express your emotions — what you feel is valid and real. 

What it can help with, though, is giving you tools to work with your emotions so that you can have more choice and control over how intense they are and how you respond to whatever is causing them. In this way, emotion regulation can help you see that emotions are communicating information. So if you feel angry, perhaps something unfair is happening to you and the emotion helps you see that.  

“Part of that is being able to experience emotions without immediately acting, which is hard to do because one of the functions of emotions is to motivate us to action,” Darnell explains. 

This can come in handy in many scenarios. Say you are extremely anxious one day at work but don’t know why. Taking the time to ask yourself what is causing your anxiety might lead you to realize you need to ask your boss to extend a deadline on your project. Solving that problem would alleviate the anxiety and allow you to focus better on your work. 

Regulating emotions can also be helpful if someone else is overburdening you. By taking a moment to consider what is happening rather than responding immediately, you can decide if you want to engage with that person or not — or ignore them and not expend your energy. 

You can learn emotion regulation skills by working with a therapist who uses methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavioral therapy. You can also try a therapy app.  

How do you know if you're asking for too much emotional labor? 

One last important point about emotional labor is making sure we aren’t asking others to do too much of it.  

While talking with your work BFF about what’s bothering you is a great way to feel heard and validated, and maybe even spark that opportunity for them, it can also become a stressful situation for them if your emotion dump is unprecedented.  

Before starting the conversation, it’s worth considering your relationship with the person. Are you close enough to confide in them? Would it make more sense to talk to your partner or best friend instead? Or even to seek other resources, such as a therapist? 

If your concern isn’t a personal issue but something broader, like systemic racism, it’s even more important to consider who you ask to listen to you. Could your questions better be answered by self-education, such as with a book or Google?  

Clear communication about boundaries is also key, Darnell says. 

“It is appropriate to check and make sure it’s OK to talk about problems, stressors or other things that ask for emotional labor from our colleagues. Set aside a specific time to talk or a designated space. Or it can be done on an informal basis with agreements about when a person can be interrupted during work and to what extent they are comfortable talking about certain topics,” she says. 

The bottom line 

Emotional labor is something many of us do at work and outside of work. While companies may not treat or acknowledge it as a valid part of our workload, it very much is, and doing too much emotional labor can take a mental and physical toll. 

Learn how to recognize if you’re doing too much emotional labor and how to manage any feelings of overwhelm that it brings on. We all deserve to be our whole selves at work and in life, emotions and all.