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 look 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?
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.