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Emotional Labor: What It Is and What It Is Not

Emotional labor is a paid chore, not a household chore.

The scenes are familiar. A restaurant customer rudely demands more prompt service, while a harried server struggles to cheerfully float between multiple tables. A caregiver must model patience and compassion while navigating the tantrums of small children. And a nurse must soothe a sick patient while being the recipient of his berating demands. At some point or another in our jobs, we have all experienced emotional labor, the strained endeavor to be outwardly graceful in the face of inward discomfort.

In some cases, emotional labor is part of the job description. In the restaurant business and in the caregiving industry, for example, tips and wages are dependent on one’s ability to exercise emotional restraint during difficult interpersonal exchanges. But in many, if not all, occupational settings, emotional labor rears its not-so-pretty face when interacting with coworkers, bosses, or the company CEO. After all, how easy is it to bite your tongue after being abruptly cut off in mid-sentence by your manager?

There is little doubt that constant emotional labor is exhausting. Studies show that the cumulative effects of constant episodes of masking true feelings with a smile are burnout, strain, job dissatisfaction, and turnover. In the caregiving industry, staff turnover rates in senior care facilities soared to 70 percent and beyond in 2018. In jobs that rely on tipping, mental health outcomes are exacerbated among women. Emotional labor demands—the need to provide comfort and care to the cranky—are likely one of the main culprits.

Getty Images
A server tries to maintain her composure during a stressful customer exchange.
Source: Getty Images

The invisibility of emotional labor renders it thankless and unappreciated, but the vividness and relatable nature of the term has allowed it to permeate into mainstream discourse. And with that, the concept has become hijacked. A recent article in the New York Times boiled it down to the domestic tasks that typically fall on wives and mothers—planning the children’s school lunches, reminders to take out the trash, etc.—that must be done to keep a household running smoothly. Secondary to those tasks are the accompanying feelings—resentment and animosity, amplified by a sense of unequal parental division of responsibilities—that are similarly experienced by women. Suggests the NYT writer, if the emotional labor imbalance becomes too extreme, couples should seek couples therapy. In the modern era, emotional labor is a feminist issue.

How does Arlie Hochschild, the sociologist who originally coined the term in 1983, feel about the hijacking of emotional labor? In an interview conducted by The Atlantic , she gave a measured response, describing the term as “very blurry and over-applied... I guess I don’t like the blurriness of the thinking.” It struck me that her very response concealed some emotional labor: polite on the surface, but uncomfortable on the inside.

She makes a valid point. When emotional labor has left the professional sphere and has entered the domestic realm; when it is used to describe a household list of domestic chores, whether or not those chores are done happily or grumpily, it has become diluted to the point of being in danger of losing its meaning. Yes, women do tend to shoulder more emotional labor in the workplace, and more attention on its health and professional repercussions means more attempts to alleviate it. But when contexts morph, and meanings change, are we still talking about the same thing?

Psychologists like precision and clarity when defining terms. At its core, emotional labor is the regulation of one’s feelings at one’s job. It is the effort and control it takes to display the organizationally appropriate sentiment—whether that is cheerfulness, compassion, discipline, or neutrality—when personal emotions run counter to those expected and required. It is emotional labor because there is emotional dissonance, i.e., a mismatch between expected and felt emotions. And it is a high stakes issue because it happens at your job and potentially affects your livelihood.

When tips, customer business, manager approval, or performance appraisals are on the line, performing the right kind of emotional management can make the difference between keeping one’s job, or losing it. The ramifications of emotional labor run deep and wide. There is a vast literature in organizational psychology on the topic. A straightforward definition that is crystal clear encourages more meaningful discussion.