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What 'Invisible Work' Looks Like in the 21st Century

Unveiling the unseen and understanding the concept of invisible work.

Key points

  • Invisible work today expands beyond gender and includes work in both personal and professional contexts.
  • Invisible work can lead to emotional exhaustion, burnout, unhappiness, and a lower sense of self-worth.
  • Organizations and policymakers must implement policies and practices that value and support invisible workers.

In the late 1980s, pioneering sociologist Arlene Kaplan Daniels coined the concept of “invisible work.” This concept focused primarily on the unpaid labor and “emotional work” performed by women in the “private world” of the home. Daniels highlighted how society often overlooked and undervalued women's contributions to “homemaking.”

As researchers in organizational behavior, leadership, and psychological motivation, we have studied workplace dynamics in organizations from Under Armour to Ikea, the University of Texas at Austin, and the Tampa Bay Lightning professional ice hockey team. Our research has allowed us to delve into a new manifestation of invisible work in the 21st century. This expanded concept goes beyond gender-specific roles and encompasses a broader range of invisible work performed in both personal and professional contexts, and we chronicle our findings in a book, Our (In)visible Work, to be published in late August.

In the modern era, invisible work has evolved beyond household chores, caregiving, and “life admin,” the office-type work it takes to run a home. It now includes emotional labor, organizational tasks, mentoring, and other behind-the-scenes efforts that contribute to the smooth functioning of individuals, families, and organizations. These efforts can range from planning birthday celebrations for office colleagues to cleaning up communal office kitchens and taking notes at meetings.

The psychological toll of invisible work can be profound and devastating, underscoring the importance of recognizing and valuing the contributions of those who do invisible work.

While a new concept four decades ago, the idea of “invisible work” now earns close scrutiny in popular culture, the media, and research. Last year, TIME magazine recognized the need to correct this inequality with an article headlined, “How to End the Unfairness of Invisible Work.” A thread on the Reddit platform explored “the ‘invisible work’ done by Dads.” A University of Wisconsin sociologist, Allison Daminger, explored how invisible labor impacts relationships. There are now even hashtag campaigns recognizing #InvisibleWork and #InvisibleLabor.

Source: Monkey Business / Adobe Stock
Invisible work often means bringing work home and destroying work-life boundaries.
Source: Monkey Business / Adobe Stock

What Is Invisible Work Today?

In the 21st century, invisible work includes critical but underappreciated tasks—mitigating conflicts, providing cultural translations, mentoring, and managing office social dynamics—and we must move it out of the shadows and into the realm where everyone’s work can be valued and appreciated.

With increased diversity in the workplace, we also now appreciate that invisible work is influenced by not just gender but also factors such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, neurodiversity, disability, sexuality, and other expressions of identity and potential marginalization. In today's fast-paced and interconnected world, the concept of work has expanded beyond traditional job descriptions on sites like Indeed and includes offline responsibilities that often don’t show up on performance reviews.

While we often associate work with visible tasks and responsibilities, a vast realm of labor goes unnoticed and unacknowledged. We saw this with remote work during the pandemic, when suddenly workers had new “invisible work,” helping colleagues manage technology, coordinating online birthday celebrations, and juggling professional work with children’s math homework. Invisible work expresses itself in the workplace as both externally focused work and internal, subjective burdens.

For example, in hospitals, bilingual health care professionals spend a lot of time helping patients and helping other professionals interact with patients who may not speak the dominant language. Across the board, health care professionals document patient information, ensuring accuracy and compliance with privacy regulations, in work that is often unseen but vital for patient care and legal compliance. In schools, teachers often invest time and effort outside the 40-hour work week, grading, designing, and purchasing curriculum materials and lesson plans in work that is typically not apparent to outsiders. At Columbia University recently, a janitor went above and beyond the requirements of their position, navigating safety and security issues as student protestors took over a building.

External engagement in the workplace includes managing and helping others regulate their emotions, providing emotional support to others, attending behind-the-scenes networking to maintain professional relationships, and mentoring and coaching others.

In internal work, we are also recognizing that it can take a toll on employees when they are perceived as a token hire, navigating stereotypes and biases, as they are expected to represent their identity group and “code-switch,” the act of changing rhetorical and sartorial styles to fit the dominant workplace culture. According to scholars Casey Klofstad and Rindy Anderson, a woman’s natural higher pitch can make her be perceived as submissive in business environments and, as a result, lower her social rank, forcing many women to adjust their natural voice tones. For racial and sexual minorities, there is often special attention to clothing, hairstyles, and mannerisms. This hidden labor, requiring affective and cognitive regulation on the part of employees, is part of the new invisible work.

Source: Aleksandr Davydov / Alamy Stock Photo
Mentoring can become invisible work that isn't valued.
Source: Aleksandr Davydov / Alamy Stock Photo

What Is the Psychological Cost of Invisible Work?

The invisibility of this work has profound implications for individual and social psychology. Psychologist Alice Eagly’s profound research on gender and leadership stereotypes underscores how invisible work perpetuates gender roles and reinforces societal expectations.

Invisible work can lead to emotional exhaustion, burnout, unhappiness, and a diminished sense of self-worth and identity, as individuals constantly juggle multiple responsibilities without recognition or support. It can blur work and personal life boundaries, impact job satisfaction and engagement, and strain personal relationships.

Additionally, social and cultural norms often influence invisible work, limiting self-care and personal fulfillment opportunities. Invisible work usually falls along gender and diversity lines, perpetuating inequality and creating feelings of resentment and frustration. It can also impact mental health, relationships, and overall job satisfaction. The undervaluation of invisible work can have broader societal consequences, reinforcing social inequalities and hindering progress toward a more equitable society.

If we think of the work of scholars like Anthony C. Klotz and Mark C. Bolino, who are credited with predicting the “Great Resignation,” they offer us clues on the impact of work that isn’t always adequately compensated, sometimes leading to “quiet quitting,” or the act of employees withdrawing their effort without explicitly resigning. A gradual decline in motivation, productivity, and job satisfaction characterizes invisible work.

What Can We Do to Correct the Imbalance?

The undervaluation of invisible work contributes to an imbalance in the distribution of labor and resources, hindering progress toward a more equitable society.

To initiate sustainable change, it is crucial to acknowledge and address the existence of invisible work. First, we must raise awareness about invisible work and its impact on individuals and communities. Sharing personal stories and experiences, like those of health care workers during the pandemic, can shed light on the hidden labor that often goes unnoticed.

Second, we must challenge societal norms and expectations perpetuating this work's invisibility. This involves reevaluating traditional roles, promoting work-life integration, advocating for fair compensation and recognition, and documenting our visible and “invisible” contributions, so we can use data to communicate our contributions.

Lastly, organizations and policymakers must implement policies and practices that value and support invisible work, such as flexible work arrangements, paid parental leave, and equal opportunities for career advancement.

Invisible work is integral to our lives and society, yet it remains hidden and undervalued. Understanding and acknowledging its existence can dismantle the structures that perpetuate its invisibility. It is time to recognize the contributions of individuals who perform this essential labor and work toward a society that values and supports all forms of work, making invisible work visible.

References

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge University Press.

Daniels, A. K. (1987). Invisible work: The persistence of gender segregation in the workplace. Women's Studies International Forum, 10(2), 113–127.

Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). (1938). U.S. Department of Labor.

Klotz, A. C., & Bolino, M. C. (2013). Citizenship and counterproductive work behavior: A moral licensing view. Academy of Management Journal, 56(3), 891–906.

U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplements.

S. Mitra Kalita. How to End the Unfairness of Invisible Work. Time. September 26, 2023

Isabella Ruder. How Invisible Labor Affects Relationships: Assistant Professor of Sociology Allison Daminger studies how an imbalance in cognitive labor--things like planning, organization and follow-through--often unfairly affects women in relationships. June 5, 2023. University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Anthony C. Klotz, Mark C. Bolino. When Quiet Quitting Is Worse Than the Real Thing. Harvard Business Review. September 15, 2022.

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