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The Paradox of Emotional Labor

In preparation for upcoming educational work with women leaders in human services fields, I’ve been thinking a lot about emotional labor, how it holds up the world, knits together families, communities, workplaces, even peacemaking processes.  And how it’s so often unpaid or underpaid, ignored as part of workplace skillsets, and disproportionately expected of and done by women.  

In my own life, it’s such a paradox.  Continually honing the skills to create space for, nurture the stories of, provide comfort for, and help empower others is a source of pride, including in my long professional life. More importantly, it’s a source of  joy and deep connection.  I have a growth mindset about my own emotional intelligence, and I continually reap the rewards of that.  Being emotionally available to a wide range of people means getting access to a wide range of humanity, which is one of the most beautiful gifts in life.

And sometimes  it can be exhausting, both at work and in family and other social contexts. One issue is that the roles of who is–and isn’t–expected to be emotionally sensitive and proactive can become hardened. And then the givers don’t receive what they need. And those not trained towards emotionally sensitivity (a whole lot of male socialization, and the reproduction of that socialization in spaces like work and home, are  implicated here) can become detached from what holds us together. Those less expected to emotional labor neither bear the burden nor reap the rewards of deep connection, and the need to sit with people’s pain, or be proactive about creating solutions to bring people together.

It’s not that men can’t do emotional labor or that they categorically avoid it.  I was lucky enough to grow up in a family with emotionally sensitive men, and that trained me to expect, and often to notice, such sensivity and effort in other men.  The emotional labor of my long-time male spouse has sustained me; it's the basis of the friendship at the core of our partnerhship. Still, as Hackman's book and decades of other research shows, gender looms large in what’s expected of us in so many situations, and that makes a big difference in the actual execution of that labor.

Rose Hackman’s book is a reminder that emotional labor connects to a variety of power structures, not only gender. This is certainly relevant in the workplace, as Arlie Hoschild first pointed out back in the early 1980s, when she observed that some people (especially women) needed to manage and regulate their emotions as part of the fulfillment of certain jobs, for example in customer service.  As Hackman says, everyone has to be prosocial in the workplace, but people with less power are more expected to be attuned to, and deferential to others, doing things like  “finessing tone, being careful of the status and egos of others,” putting others’ emotional needs above their own, creating space for others’ emotions at work while stuffing down our own.  

But power connected to expectations of emotional labor, Hackman rightly observes, often breaks down in ways that reinforce social hierarchies. “Who is expected to do emotional labor the most is not about ability but who has the least perceived power. In a work context, that means more emotional labor for junior people, but it also means people with marginalized identities – women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people – will be expected to do even more of it, regardless of rank.”

These are big sticky problems, but it’s a pleasure to see the problems  being more directly named, and the work that has long been considered “women’s work” lifted up, the skill sets broken down and given their due. The invitation to see and lift up the work, no matter who is doing it, is timely and important, and can make our workplaces more equitable and more emotionally supportive overall.


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