What is Emotional Labor, and How Can You Deal With It?

A woman sits in darkness, her head in her hands.

Many people have to compartmentalize their emotions in order to properly and effectively perform their jobs. This is called emotional labor, and it can have extremely negative consequences for those who have to perform it frequently. Recently, emotional labor has been defined a few different ways, but the original definition, which we will use, was coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book, “The Managed Heart.” Emotional labor is, as she explained to The Atlantic, “the work, for which you’re paid, which centrally involves trying to feel the right feeling for the job. This involves evoking and suppressing feelings. Some jobs require a lot of it, some a little of it.”

Think, for example, of being a nurse — in order to keep going throughout their shift, they have to practice emotional labor in the face of patients dying. Part of being a certified nursing assistant goes beyond technical skills and training, and requires CNAs to become emotionally resilient, practicing a combination of empathy and self-care while constantly tending to patients. They have to remain composed and neutral as patients feel and express a range of emotions.

What Is Invisible Labor?

Emotional labor and invisible labor are terms that some people use interchangeably. Though they are similar, they are not the same thing. “Invisible labor,” or “unpaid work,” is work that needs to be done but is not compensated for. The person that takes time off from work to take care of a chronically ill family member and is not paid must still do physical and mental labor, which takes an emotional toll.

Emotional Labor Burnout

People who are required to do emotional labor frequently, or over long periods of time may experience burnout. Burnout, according to Psychology Today, is a “state of chronic stress that leads to: physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.”

Signs include:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Forgetfulness and impaired concentration and attention
  • Physical symptoms including chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal pain, dizziness, fainting, and headaches
  • Increased illness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Loss of enjoyment
  • Pessimism
  • Isolation
  • Detachment
  • Feelings of apathy and hopelessness
  • Increased irritability
  • Lack of productivity or poor performance

The cost of burnout is high. “It is a state of exhaustion and emotional depletion that is dysfunctional for the employee and leads to absenteeism, turnover, and reduced job performance,” one study found.

Nurses, like all healthcare workers, are at a heightened risk of burnout due, in part, to emotional labor — but it doesn’t have to be that way. Nursing education and professional development needs to include self-care training and support.

Who Is at Risk of Burnout?

Everyone has to do emotional labor — especially in the workplace — but certain populations are at a greater risk of experiencing burnout from the emotional labor they’re expected to perform.

“Moreover,” the above study continued, “these effects are particularly problematic for health care professionals, whose lower job performance can also have an adverse effect on their patients’ health.” The study found that those holding these positions, like nurses and family caregivers, have a relatively high risk of burnout thanks to the emotional labor involved with their jobs. While nurses may be among the most visible examples of those practicing emotional labor and risking burnout, they are not unique in this aspect.

Other roles at high risk for burnout include:

  • Stay-at-home parents;
  • Physicians;
  • Teachers;
  • School principals;
  • Social workers;
  • Attorneys;
  • Retail workers;
  • Food service workers.

Managing the Effects of Emotional Labor

For many people, emotional labor is a normal part of life, and it is something you might have to learn how to deal with. To mitigate emotional labor leading to burnout, professionals like nurses need to practice self-care, and understand the limits of empathy and compassion.

There are a number of different coping mechanisms you can use to better manage the stress that can stem from emotional labor.

  • Connect to a purpose: Remind yourself that you are learning skills from this job to help your overall career; that you need the health insurance; or that putting the money from a paycheck into a 401K will pay dividends later.
  • Don’t bottle up feelings: You will explode sooner or later, and it could damage your career.
  • Take care of yourself: Eat, get enough sleep, take breaks, and use vacation days.
  • Explore flexible options: Work from home in your pajamas a few days a week and take a break from office life.
  • Don’t overwork yourself: While great for showing your boss that you can take on that much work, the emotional investment may not be worth it and can lead to burnout faster.

Emotional labor is often overlooked and those in the industries where emotions must be tightly controlled have the highest burden of emotional labor, and, thus, are more at risk of experiencing burnout. It’s important to know the signs of emotional burnout, as well as how to manage the stress and emotional toll these jobs take. However, by mitigating these effects, it’s possible to continue practicing emotional labor while still taking care of yourself.