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We know that most jobs require a measure of physical and/or mental labor to execute them properly. And we should have a good idea of how much labor is required ahead of time. But there are a good number of jobs that also require something called emotional labor.

Put simply, emotional labor consists of managing feelings and expressions to fulfill the emotional requirements of a job. For instance, a cashier or server having to put on a constant smile to keep customers happy — even though the worker may not be happy themselves.

Many people may not realize how much they expend emotional labor every day because practicing habits that help us put forth a pleasant attitude for strangers in public is part of our social norms.

But while you may not be able to totally avoid emotional labor in our day-to-day — especially working in the service industry — it shouldn’t cost your emotional and mental wellbeing. There are ways to manage it while avoiding burnout.

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Though the term emotional labor has become more widely known in recent years, it’s also commonly misused.

It was originally introduced by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1983, as a term presented in her book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. By her own original definition, emotional labor is when your paid work centrally involves trying to feel the right feeling for the job.

She identifies the following as jobs that require emotional labor:

  • teacher
  • childcare worker
  • flight attendant
  • nursing home attendant
  • bill collector

It can also be required of those working in the food service industry, retail, and the healthcare industry.

On the flipside (and contrary to popular assumption) emotional labor shouldn’t be confused with feelings attached to the following:

  • perfectionism
  • doing daily chores like laundry or shopping
  • planning complicated events for work or the holidays

So, to be clear, emotional labor isn’t about how you feel about the work itself. Rather, it’s the front-facing emotions that you need to have in order to execute the full requirements of the work.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Hochschild says that emotional labor ultimately involves evoking and suppressing feelings.

“The point is that while you may also be doing physical labor and mental labor, you are crucially being hired and monitored for your capacity to manage and produce a feeling.”

Some jobs that contain a great deal of emotional labor in the job requirements include:

  • receptionist
  • server
  • customer service representative
  • flight attendant
  • cashier
  • nurse
  • home care attendant
  • retail staff
  • social worker
  • childcare worker
  • journalist

Since emotional labor is seen as the invisible work of managing other people’s emotions, it isn’t just confined to your daily occupation. It can easily creep into home life, interfering with personal relationships, too.

If someone feels the need to give less than genuine emotions in a relationship, or if someone often has to succumb to emotional demands in order to maintain a friendship, those are also examples of emotional labor.

Emotional labor differs from mental labor, physical labor, and emotional exhaustion because it primarily deals with the management of others’ feelings as opposed to your own.

Emotional laborMental labor
Politely apologizing for the 10th time after another customer scolds you for a small mistake on their food order that you didn’t makeGoing over data for the 10th time so you can prepare for a big presentation the following morning
Emotional laborPhysical labor
Smiling to welcome guests at an amusement park even though you’re still reeling from the bad news you received Cleaning the food court for the third time that day as an employee of the amusement park
Emotional laborEmotional exhaustion
Making the kids in your class laugh to keep them engaged even though you just found out that you can’t pay for your parent’s assisted livingYour friend just shared some great news with you, but after a chaotic week, you’re too emotionally numb to react as expected

Emotional labor can cause burnout, which stems from prolonged exposure to a stressful work environment. It’s a state of exhaustion that is dysfunctional and can actually lead to reduced job performance.

According to a 2018 research review, data from a 2007 study surveying 2,055 service and sales workers found that emotional labor is associated with an increased risk for depressive mood in female workers and in men who have lower-paying jobs.

It can even cause serious physical health conditions. Another study found that emotional labor has been linked to the loss of memory, depersonalization, hypertension, heart disease, and has even been shown to exacerbate cancer.

Despite the serious effects emotional labor can have on our health, we tend to think it’s just part of the package that comes with the job.

Anxiety and emotional labor

Anxiety can stem directly from emotional labor due to the toll it can take if unmanaged.

Stress and anxiety go hand in hand, and can be triggered by something happening that makes you feel frustrated or nervous, which can then trigger anxiety.

Having to be in these situations commonly in the workplace can fuel distressing anxiety cycles, which worsen as each situation is repeated, as you associate politeness and professionalism with those feelings of anxiety.

It’s important that you draw boundaries so that emotional labor doesn’t have a negative effect on other parts of your life.

You may be dealing with emotional labor if you ask yourself any of the following questions:

  • Why was I not honest about my answer?
  • Is it important for me to nurture this person’s feelings?
  • How does that make me feel?
  • What should I do next time?
  • How am I still smiling?
  • Why do I have to keep pretending?
  • Why can’t I say no?

It can be difficult to draw boundaries, especially in a work environment. But there are ways to address or manage your emotional labor without being rude or aggressive.

Professional example:

When a customer has scolded you for not providing their proper shoe size.

Response: “I am sorry that we do not have your size, but I have checked, and I am certain it’s not in stock. However, I can recommend a shop that supplies similar clothing, as I have other things to do now.”

Personal example:

Your partner goes back on their promise to do something, and you’re annoyed because you know it won’t get done unless you do it.

Response: “I’m feeling tired. We agreed you would do this. I have done what I needed to do, and now you need to do the same.”

Other responses you might want to try:

“Thank you for your text message, but for my own personal boundaries, I hope we can continue our professional conversation via email.”

“That is something I am not comfortable doing and I hope that you can respect that.”

“I feel that I am being asked for more than the position stated. It would be great if we could arrange a meeting to discuss my duties and what is expected of me.”

It is important to be assertive, to get your point across, but in a way that doesn’t cause confrontation.

It can be helpful to examine your thoughts and feelings to find out if your stress or anxiety stems from emotional labor. It can also be helpful to pinpoint when your stress or anxiety feels like it’s at its peak.

Talking to a therapist could help, not only with releasing built-up emotions, but also with providing specific boundaries and talking points helpful for navigating emotional labor.

It’s important to understand the prevalence of emotional labor while not ignoring the potential impact on your mental and emotional health. It takes practice to identify it, but with self-awareness and honest communication, you can learn how to manage it like a pro.