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What Is Emotional Labor, and What Can You Do About It?

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Emotional labor is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but what does it really mean? It's a term I've struggled to define in a perfect, simple sentence. But the truth is, it's a complex issue that's easier to unpack with examples. So let's start unpacking.

You know when a client comes into your office and mistakes you as the secretary, presumably just because you're a woman, and you just chuckle and shrug it off? Or you rephrase an email upwards of 10 times so you don't come off as too harsh and demanding? Or your male coworker asks you to explain the wage gap? Or you feel forced to constantly put on a happy face around the office so no one asks you why you're not smiling? Yeah, that's emotional labor.

Image source: Getty Images.

So what's the problem?

These little things that go unnoticed may seem like they're not a big deal, but it's not healthy to micromanage your emotions and actions to please others. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term in 1983, and journalist Gemma Hartley describes emotional labor as, "the unpaid, often unnoticed labor that goes into keeping those around you comfortable and happy." So why does emotional labor disproportionately fall onto women? Probably because society has taught us from a young age that it's our job to keep those around us happy and satisfied.

Women are pulled in every which direction -- we have to kick ass at our jobs, be assertive but not bossy, intelligent but not a know-it-all, and empathetic but never emotional (god forbid). Whenever we're hit with sexist remarks or subtle harassment, we've been conditioned to internalize them at work in order to keep the peace and not completely lose it. It takes an emotional toll on us to balance out all of these expectations and always remain calm. In other words, emotional labor is exhausting.

I'm no stranger to it myself. My first day of work in Spain, I was smiling ear to ear, politely laughing at everyone's jokes because I was genuinely excited to start working in a new place -- and also because I wanted to make the best impression possible. Since then, I've felt a pressure to maintain this positive, cheery presence. I worry that if I'm not constantly smiling, it'll affect my co-workers and they'll think something is wrong. Even if something is bothering me, I feel like I can't let it show.

So what can you do about it?

The first step is just acknowledging that it happens. Since we're so accustomed to emotional labor in our daily lives, we may not even realize we're doing it. But if you find yourself emotionally drained and ready to explode with pent-up steam at the end of every day, start making a list of the labor you do at work that isn't really part of your job description. Once you can see a physical list of everything you're doing, it'll be easier to manage the next steps.

Once you realize that it's happening, seek out a female mentor. At InHerSight, we know how important it is to find the right mentor. To ease the burden of emotional labor, find one you can talk to about the weight it's put on you, and together you can develop a plan to better foster personal growth and a healthy workplace mindset.

Finally, set more boundaries for yourself. Don't feel pressured to always clean up after your co-workers or say yes to favors. Prioritize your own work, share more responsibility among your co-workers, and ask for help with managing projects and office housework. Don't be afraid to voice your contributions and stand up for yourself. Keep on killin' at the job you were hired to do!

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The Motley Fool has an ownership interest in InHerSight. Motley Fool CFO Ollen Douglass serves on the board of directors for InHerSight. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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