What We Know as Emotional Labor Is Often Not What It Means at All


Aug 21, 2019


The popular feminist term ’emotional labor’ centers around the unpaid labor that women do with respect to work, family, relationships, and life in general. For example, there’s Gemma Hartley, who wrote a viral Harper’s Bazaar article that covers the pain and exhaustion of someone with a slacking, unsupportive partner. She writes, “Walking that fine line to keep the peace and not upset your partner is something women are taught to accept as their duty from an early age.” Hartley’s essay is known as the work that popularized emotional labor as a global concept.

However, Hartley’s use of the term is incorrect. What Hartley is describing is actually gendered mental fatigue caused by the patriarchal systems that we all inhabit.

So, why can’t people just call that mouthful emotional labor?

To understand why, the roots of emotional labor as a concept are vital — that is, it had a significantly different origin and definition. In 1983, a book named The Managed Heart closely examined flight attendants and bill collectors — two groups of workers whose jobs relied on using ‘people skills’ or consistent positive/negative interaction with other people. The author, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, found that flight attendants behaved more nicely than normal to make the customer happy and create further demand for the airline. On the other hand, bill collectors had to be meaner than usual to make sure customers paid up for the service they consumed. Both types of workers were using techniques of emotion management in order to serve the interests of the company they worked for.

Hochschild then coined the term emotional labor, which is defined as paid labor that involves evoking and suppressing emotions in order to portray oneself in a particular light. Emotional labor has a unique personal cost, due to how hard it becomes to separate the emotions required for work versus an individual’s own emotions. For example, a hostess at a restaurant will have a different ‘work’ smile as compared to the way she smiles when she’s genuinely happy.

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The effort of extensive emotional labor in tough working conditions could lead to exhaustion and eventually an emotional breakdown, according to Ishita Gupta, counseling psychologist and founder of Breakthrough Counselling. She says, “While working in exhausting, public-facing conditions like a fast-food restaurant or as a receptionist, you could get irritated and snappy at everything and keep feeling like things would get better if you had a break. Ideally, this shouldn’t be a part of your work, but it is — and there’s really no way to quantify it.”

The adverse effects of emotional labor are also why the concept of emotional labor is deeply tied to worker rights — while physical laborers are at least aware of the exhaustion that accompanies their work, people whose work requires extensive emotional labor may not be aware of emotional exhaustion and burnout. Health problems linked with emotional labor include hypertension, heart disease and higher chances of developing cancer — and workers going through one of these issues may not know that emotional labor could be a potential factor, among many, causing these problems.

Coming back to Hartley’s essay, the reason why her mental struggles at home cannot be called emotional labor, is that there is a difference between modulating your emotions and employing ‘people skills’ to succeed in a workplace that pays you, versus voluntarily doing the same while living around a partner. While relationships do involve labor, that labor typically comes from a place of love, rather than an employment expectation.

There is also something inherently sexist about calling the work at home that falls most often to women ’emotional’ labor. Emotional, a gender-neutral term for what an individual feels, is often conflated with feminine by society; therefore, the term emotional labor in this context risks painting the work women do in the home as feminine — unsuited to men — which risks reinforcing the notion that some work, especially home-related work, belongs to women.

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If an individual were to seek help for a breakdown caused by emotional labor, a mental health professional would approach it in a completely different way as compared to treatment for a breakdown caused by gendered mental fatigue. Even Hochschild has spoken out against the blurring line between mental and emotional labor. In an interview with The Atlantic, she said, “We’re trying to have an important conversation but having it in a very hazy way, working with [a] blunt concept. I think the answer is to be more precise and careful in our ideas and to bring this conversation into families and to the office in a helpful way. If you have an important conversation using muddy ideas, you cannot accomplish your purpose. You won’t be understood by others. And you won’t be clear to yourself. That’s what’s going on. You’re doing the right thing, you’re seeking help, but you’re not getting clarification and communicating clearly. It can defeat the purpose; it can backfire.”

Terminology and individual concepts are important as they’re the way people can make sense of things. When one concept blurs with another — both concepts lose what they were and become an off-sounding mutation that nobody can truly define, understand and utilize to their benefit. When emotional labor retains its original meaning, it is a valuable ally to the fight against worker exploitation. So is mental labor, in the fight against the patriarchy. What we understand correctly is what we have a better chance of winning against.


Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is a culture writer at The Swaddle. Previously, she worked as a freelance journalist focused on gender and cities. Find her on social media @aditimurti.


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