What is Emotional Labor

A sad woman rests her head on her hand while her male partner is on the other end of the couch
PeopleImages / Getty Images

Emotional labor is defined as putting energy into dealing with the feelings of others, putting them at ease without self-regard, or meeting social expectations. With such a broad definition, it can mean a variety of things, based on the person’s circumstances and perspective. 

Although this concept was first conceived in 1983 by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who related to managing emotions as expected by certain professions, it has expanded and taken on a wider meaning that reaches beyond the workplace and into the home. New York Times writer Kristin Wong claims that women are more likely to experience stress and anxiety than men due to emotional expectations. 

Who Experiences Emotional Labor

Women and girls are more likely to experience an expanded definition of emotional labor than men. Societal norms have created an environment for females to be held responsible for everyone else’s happiness and acceptance, both at work and at home. Emotional labor isn’t necessarily always bad, although much of the discussion about it is negative. 

Examples of Negative Emotional Labor

Emotional labor begins in early childhood and continues on through adulthood. In many cases, the disparity of expectations between men and women determines career choices. In other cases, it defines the roles men and women play at home. 

Here are some examples of negative emotional labor:

  • Friends and family feel more freedom to dump their problems on a woman, with expectations of kind words of comfort and sympathy.
  • Women and girls are often expected to babysit younger siblings, children of friends, and other children.
  • Wives are often criticized for not keeping a clean house, while husbands typically get a pass.
  • Women are expected to speak in softer tones with cleaner language, while men get away with loud, salty language.
  • Promiscuous women are considered "slutty," while men are called studs for the exact same behavior.
  • Women are often relegated to more mundane office tasks, while men may get more interesting and career-advancing assignments.
  • When men get sick, women are expected to care for them. However, when women get sick, some men avoid going anywhere near them.
  • Women are often blamed for not doing what it takes to maintain a romantic relationship with a man.
  • In both professional and social scenarios, women are deemed negatively aggressive when they stand up for themselves.

How to Deal with Negative Emotional Labor Away from Home

Some women are fine with the traditional expectations that have been placed on them. However, many women are frustrated, tired, and maybe even angry about what’s been put on their shoulders. 

Here are some ways to deal with it away from home:

  • When someone starts to unload their problems, expecting a listening ear and comforting words, say something like, “I’m sorry, but I’m not equipped to deal with this type of problem.”
  • If you are asked to babysit, simply because you are the only female available, you can say, “Unfortunately, I’m not your best choice. Maybe you should ask George. He loves children, and they naturally gravitate toward him.”
  • When someone expects you to take care of him or her when they are sick, say, “I would make a terrible nurse. Maybe you should call a doctor.”
  • Before the boss makes assignments, be clear and let him or her know that you’d like one of the major or more visible tasks.
  • If the boss gives you another busy-work task, recommend offering it to a newer associate who needs the experience, while you take a more complex project.

What to Do About Negative Emotional Labor at Home

When your spouse expects you to do all of the work related to the home, you’re likely to eventually burn out. However, it can become a very bad habit that’s difficult to break. You want to create family harmony, not discourse. Don’t lose sight of your ultimate goal. Accusations will get you nowhere, so wait until you are calm before discussing your concerns with your spouse. 

What to say to your spouse if you want to break the emotional labor cycle at home:

  • If both you and your spouse have full-time jobs, you may try something like, “If you take some of the household tasks, we can knock it out a lot more quickly. Then maybe we can have more time to relax together.”
  • If company arrives before you have a chance to straighten your house, you don’t owe anyone an explanation. However, if you feel that you must say something, try, “If we knew you were coming, Jim would have loaded the dishwasher. It’s his turn this week.”
  • If you don’t have an outside job and your primary responsibilities are the home and children, ask your spouse to do some things after dinner, like putting the dishes away, folding the towels, or helping the children get ready for bed. 
  • After a long day at work, encourage your spouse to take a turn cooking dinner. And if it’s not perfect, let it go. Criticism will only cause more resistance later. 
  • Next time your spouse walks away from the table, leaving dirty dishes, say, “Why don’t we both put our own dishes in the dishwasher so neither of us is stuck doing all of it?”
  • When the children need to go somewhere, ask your spouse to participate. So many moms shuttle their children everywhere while their spouses aren’t expected to deal with transportation duties. 

If you want to break out of the negative aspects of emotional labor, do something about it. Sitting back and seething over the situation won’t get you anywhere. It will only cause your anger to intensify, and that adds to the stress and resentment. If you make comments that fall on deaf ears, you might need to call a family meeting. Remember that sharing responsibilities will need to become a habit, which won’t happen overnight.

Respect Your Emotions

Take care of yourself. When you’re emotionally exhausted, you need to separate yourself from the situation, take a break, rest, and do something you enjoy. Whether you’re at work or home, you may need to go for a walk to regroup.

Even those who enjoy traditional roles need to understand that no one can be everything to someone else, regardless of how nurturing they are. It’s humanly impossible and only sets you up for emotional failure. Positive emotional labor can quickly turn around to become negative if you participate in these unrealistic expectations.

What is Positive Emotional Labor?

Not all attempts to be nice and positive in stressful situations are negative emotional labor. For example, if you’re meeting your future in-laws for the first time, there is nothing wrong with dressing nicely, bringing flowers, and trying to make a good first impression. However, always trying to live up to a disrespectful in-law’s difficult expectation that goes against your nature is bad emotional labor.

It is also not bad emotional labor to bring food or offer to run errands for someone who is sick or hurt. If you are a good cook, and the next-door neighbor has been injured in a car accident, it’s simply a nice thing to do. Conversely, if the neighbor constantly calls you and expects you to put your life on hold to take care of him, that is negative emotional labor.

Emotional Labor Sharing

One of the most common forms of emotional labor is on a personal level. The wife may be expected to do all the housework, laundry, cooking, child duties, social planning, letter writing, sending RSVPs for parties, and everything else to keep the family running smoothly.

Over time, this builds resentment, unless the partners recognize what is happening. If they both hold full-time jobs, they need to sit down and divvy up all the duties required for a happy family, thus sharing the emotional labor. Even if one of them assumes full-time care for the home and children, the other spouse should participate in some of the emotional labor at home. Only when this happens can a family function at an optimal level.