💡 Life Tip - How to Recover from a Hidden Cost that Takes You Down (Issue #31)
Emotional labor has a toll
I was absolutely drained.
Surprisingly, my first white-collar job left me more exhausted by the end of the day than any of my previous hard-labor blue-collar jobs had in the past. At the time, I didn’t understand why and didn’t have the words to explain it.
Now, I do; Emotional Labor.
I was experiencing the cognitive and emotional fatigue that comes from managing emotional labor every day (e.g., arguing with a coworker, defending my point of view, trying to keep people happy, constantly worrying about being laid off, etc.). My blue-collar jobs had smaller elements of these issues, but nothing like my tech job did.
Here is how the creator of the term defines it.
“As I defined it in my 1983 book The Managed Heart, emotional labor is the work we do to evoke or suppress feeling or emotion in the service of doing paid work—that is, by managing emotion. Usually it goes along with mental work and physical work, but it is, in itself, a singular form of labor. It calls for a distinct kind of skill, offers its own kind of reward and exacts its own kind of costs.”
— Arlie Russell Hochschild, sociologist and professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley (source)
I’ll share an example from a job where my sons were employed during the pandemic. They worked at a local orchard and shop that sells fresh produce and several other types of tasty food (e.g., donuts, cider, candy, etc.).
Their jobs were already physically demanding (e.g., stocking, cleaning, working the grill, and clearing brush in the orchards). But, an unexpected emotional labor component emerged: dealing with customers who refused to follow the store’s mask policy.
Some people had merely forgotten to wear one. So, they would apologize and return to their cars to get a mask and come back.
However, some customers became irritated, belligerent, and even aggressive. They would shout and curse at the employees, who were mostly teenage children. They would threaten the employees who were simply following the policy established by the owners. Some puffed up and acted as if they would become physically violent.
Can you believe it? Threatening children simply because they didn’t want to wear a mask for a few minutes while they were shopping. I still get angry when I think about this.
So, these poor kids had to stand up to angry adults and try to be professional and reasonable while an angry customer was shouting and threatening them.
That’s emotional labor.
Does your job involve emotional labor? For example:
Putting on a happy face at work, no matter how you are feeling.
Dealing with irate customers.
Working for an angry boss.
Working with toxic coworkers.
Being your boss’ therapist.
Many of us perform emotional labor in our lives outside of work as well. We have relationships with a dynamic that dumps it all into our laps. Mothers and fathers are all too familiar with this when they manage the emotions and problems of their children. Spouses often feel it when arguing with each other. You may even encounter it with high-maintenance friends.
If any of this sounds familiar, don’t overlook your need for care and recovery. How you manage this depends on how intense things have been and if it’s an ongoing problem. Here are some things you can try.
Blow off steam together
If other people you work and live with are also dealing with similar issues, it helps to commiserate, laugh about it, and blow off some steam. For example, I had some friends at work who were dealing with the same manager. We’d take a break, grab a coffee, discuss it, and laugh about the manager. It helped.
Ask for help
If you’re being overloaded with dealing with an issue that’s overwhelming you with the emotional labor component, it’s ok to ask for help. Take a break from an angry customer and let another coworker take over, or ask your supervisor to speak to them. I remember being threatened by a rather large university football player who didn’t want to pay for a parking ticket. He acted like he wanted to come through the glass and strangle me. I knocked on the wall next to me, and an armed police officer came to the window. Strangely enough, the man was able to calm down when faced with an authority figure like that.
Don’t get caught up in the emotions of the moment. It’s not always easy to stay calm, but it can help to remember that the other person is probably dealing with other issues that are causing them to unload on you. It’s usually not personal. If you can disconnect a little, you can stay rational, let the emotions flow past you, and forget about it as soon as it’s over.
It’s taken several years, but I’m now fairly tuned into my emotional state and well-being levels. I know when I’m getting close to a breaking point, and need to take some time to care for myself. That often includes things like going for a walk, lifting weights, listening to music I enjoy, or going for a long hike in the forest. I recharge my batteries before diving back into the work or personal issues.
Make a change
Finally, if your job or a relationship is always slamming you with emotional labor, it might be time for a change. You might need to start looking for a new job. Or, you may need to change professions.
I know that sounds drastic, but your health and well-being are important. If it’s a friend or loved one, you may need to manage the time you spend with them. Again, you are important. If a friend is high-maintenance and always drains you, you might need to limit exposure to them. I’ve had to do that in some cases.
Emotional labor is actual work, and it’s often hidden work. Pay attention and see if it’s happening in your life. Then, decide what you’re going to do about it.
Hi, I’m Larry Cornett, a Personal Coach who can work with you to optimize your career, life, or business. My mission is to help you take complete control of your life so you can become a more “Invincible You.” I currently live in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with my wife and our Great Dane. Here’s a photo from one of my “recovery walks” this past weekend. It helped!