Navigating Emotional Labor at Work

Navigating Emotional Labor at Work. Written by Allison McWilliams for the Huffington Post, May 9, 2017.

There is a generally-unspoken, but well-understood rule of the workplace: keep your emotions, unless they are positive, tightly held. What does this Man who is writing and painting with many different paint colors all over his handslook like in practice? Don’t show vulnerability or weakness. Don’t get down, upset, or express discomfort or unhappiness. Be grateful for the opportunities that you have been given, be a good team player, maintain a positive attitude. If you’re going to cry or complain, do it somewhere where you can’t be seen or heard, and don’t come back until you get it in check.

Nobody cares for the colleague who is constantly negative and seeing the glass as half-empty. But as this interview with psychologist Susan David in The Atlantic points out, there is value in acknowledging and making room for these emotions in the workplace. Humans aren’t robots (not yet, anyway), and we bring to work a whole range of emotions and experiences that are equally valuable.

There is critical data to be found in people’s emotional responses to what is happening at work. Ignoring those responses or encouraging people to suppress them only hides that data, which can have serious ramifications on the functioning of the workplace and individual well-being, particularly during times of change or high stress.

This is just one aspect of emotional labor at work: the burden that people feel not only to do their jobs and to do them well, but also to do them with a constant sunny disposition. Emotional labor is when we feel pressured to act like “everything’s fine” to make other people feel better.

Emotional labor is also when we feel obligated to do emotional care-taking for others at work. For women, especially, this sort of labor hits particularly hard. Women are assumed to be better at this sort of work due to their “soft” personalities; therefore, they are more frequently burdened with roles like mentorship. But these roles typically aren’t valued by organizational measures of success, which makes those who do them less able to achieve that success.

How can you better navigate these sometimes tricky waters?

  • As a new employee: Pay attention to how people interact with one another and how they treat one another in times of stress. What happens when someone questions authority? What happens when someone complains or gets frustrated? What happens when someone expresses fear or anxiety? And, if you don’t see anyone expressing any of these emotions, what does that mean? Find a trusted mentor or wise counselor who can help to walk you through what you are seeing and experiencing, and who can advise you on the best way to share your emotions with others. If it does not seem like a safe environment to express less-than-positive feelings, find a trusted friend with whom you can periodically confide. Even if the organization doesn’t support it, constantly suppressing your emotions is not productive to your long-term health and well-being.
  • As a seasoned employee: Pay attention to the emotional labor that you carry on a daily basis. Do you routinely suppress your true feelings in order to “toe the party line”? Do you find yourself sitting in meetings and questioning decisions but keeping silent out of fear of retribution? Do you have a trusted colleague or mentor with whom you can discuss these feelings? Also, how do you support the vulnerability of others? The next time that a colleague expresses anxiety, fear, or unhappiness, first thank them for sharing it and acknowledge that what they are feeling is real. Then ask if and how you can be helpful.
  • As a leader or manager: Pay attention to the culture of your organization and how your employees interact. Does everyone always enthusiastically support ideas? When someone offers a criticism, is your immediate reaction to defend your stance and tell them why they are wrong? Before your start a new project or implement a change, take the time to take everyone’s temperature on it, and do so again at various points throughout. Unearth the hidden data that will make your organization stronger. Pay attention to who does the emotional care-taking of others, and make sure that burden is fairly shared among employees. Give everyone the tools that they need to be successful, both personally and professionally.

Employees aren’t robots, nor are they just numbers on a spreadsheet. Employee engagement, we know, has a profound impact on organizational success. And most of today’s employees are not engaged. As the folks at Gallup, who study employee engagement, remind us, “Employees don’t check their personalities at the door when they come to work. Knowing that they are respected as individuals at work can have a significant impact on how employees view their overall lives.” Emotional labor, just like the day-to-day tasks that occupy us, impacts every employee’s ability to feel valued and engaged at work. We all must take ownership for creating organizations that value individuals for the full spectrum of who they truly are.