What is Emotional Labor, and Why Does it Matter?

By Rachel Puryear

We all have a pretty good sense of what it means to perform physical labor.

We perform physical labor in workplaces – that might include, depending upon your occupation; building houses, serving food, or shuffling lots of paper; as examples.

At home and in everyday life; physical labor could include cleaning house, caring for kids as well as elders and people with health challenges, and home maintenance.

There is also a lot of emotional labor people perform in daily life. This type of labor is much less tangible than physical labor, as are its fruits – accordingly, it often gets overlooked.

However, the demands of emotional labor – as well as developing skill in performing it, and avoiding becoming overburdened by it – plays an important role people’s well-being, and their satisfaction with interpersonal relationships. Accordingly, recognizing and being aware of emotional labor deserves greater attention.

Accordingly, here’s a basic overview about emotional labor – this post is intended to familiarize with the concept, and future posts may go into deeper depth with various categories:

People holding hands.

Emotional Labor in the Workplace

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term “emotional labor” in the 1983 book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling.

Emotional labor in the workplace refers to managing one’s own emotions for the sake of a job. For instance, in any customer service or public facing position, there’s lots of emotional labor.

Emotional labor, in customer service, is what keeps a worker smiling in the face of difficult people, instead of making whatever sarcastic comeback is going through their minds. Or being patient with a frustrating person, when they’d really like to just scream.

Emotional labor has also been astutely described as ‘being nicer than natural’.

This is an area where I suspect the 80/20 rule also comes into play – 80% of the emotional labor is probably necessitated by 20% of the people a worker must serve. The kind of people who scoff at ’emotional labor’, and claim that such public service jobs are ‘easy’, probably are the same ones who burn through an awful lot of other people’s emotional labor energies.

Emotional labor in the workplace can also include being nice to a boss you don’t feel particularly nice about, for the sake of keeping your job. This is inherent to most authority/subordinate relationships.

Emotional Labor in Everyday Life

Everyday emotional labor refers to dealings with other people around you generally, whom you may or may not be close to. It includes the effort people make to have good manners, to deal effectively with disputes with others, and to conform to social norms (even when they might rather not).

Furthermore, depending upon how an individual fits into society (as viewed by most others around them), everyday life could require more emotional labor from some people than from others – again, lower social status means more emotional labor on behalf of those of higher social status.

For people marginalized because of their race, gender, or being perceived as different in some other way; they often feel the need to constantly appease others around them – knowing that not doing so could mean facing real consequences.

The impact of day-to-day extra emotional labor for some people takes an extra toll that is often invisible – this subtly steals away mental energy that could otherwise go to cognitive, creative, or intellectual pursuits, or towards simply relaxing and enjoying life.

When Close Relationships Become Emotional Labor

In the context of close relationships, as opposed to those at work or in everyday life; emotional labor refers to where there is an ongoing inequality in the amount of giving and receiving emotional support. Where this occurs in adult relationships, both people involved would need to remedy the situation – if that’s realistic, which it may or may not be – for the relationship to meet each person’s needs.

If you’ve ever wondered why it can be so exhausting to be around certain people for a while – even if you’re not doing much physical labor, and you’re not sleep deprived – it’s probably because they require lots of emotional labor. Some people require more emotional labor to be around than others.

When an individual constantly requires a high amount of emotional labor; it could be because they are needy, immature, demanding, obtuse, or lacking in empathy.

However, all of us might need extra emotional labor from others during times when our mental health is suffering, we’re deeply dissatisfied with something in our lives, or we’re having a difficult time. In any long term relationship, there will be times of imbalance, where one person needs more support and has less to give during a particularly challenging time – but the difference being that in a healthy relationship, this would go back and forth as needed, and balance out over time, with those roles reversing as needed.

In parent-child relationships, parents constantly perform emotional labor to raise children. Parents are authority figures over their children, though, so this relationship is different from those where the subordinate gives most of the emotional labor. However, parents must restrain their own behavior, because young children have a limited/or no ability to do so yet.

This is part of the sacrifice of parenting, and one of many reasons why parents are often so tired. It’s also why it’s important for parents to be ready emotionally to have children – as well as in other ways.

In close romantic or friendship relationships, there is generally an expectation of regular emotional support going back and forth. This is not emotional labor, when the support goes both ways and is more or less balanced over time.

However, where an ongoing disparity in giving and receiving emotional support in an intimate relationship or friendship; then the person doing most/all of the giving is instead performing emotional labor on a regular basis, while the other person isn’t contributing their fair share.

It’s the inequity which turns the support-giving into emotional labor on behalf of the person getting the better end of the deal.

When this is the case, it may be because the relationship is unequal from the start (such as a patriarchal relationship where women are expected to do all/most of the support-giving, or where other disparities in power exist from the beginning).

Close adult relationships where one person must perform emotional labor for the other, while not receiving much or any emotional support back out of it; are very difficult to sustain being in over time. This is largely the essence of what it means to be in a toxic and unsatisfying relationship.

When that’s the case, if the situation cannot be remedied, then the relationship itself should be called into question.

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Thank you, dear readers, for reading, following, and sharing. Here’s to giving and receiving emotional labor, fairly. If you enjoyed this content and want to see more of it, please hit “like” and subscribe, if you have not done so already. xoxo

Check out my other blog, too – Free Range Life, at https://freerangelife.net. It’s about road trips to parks and other cool places to see, how wealth is built and lost – and things I wish I’d known earlier about finances, ideas for building remote/passive income streams, and van life/RV tips.

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One response to “What is Emotional Labor, and Why Does it Matter?”

  1. […] style is commonly expected from service workers in customer service matters. This creates a large emotional labor expectation for such workers that tends to be underestimated in how many people view such jobs […]


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