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Emotional Labor

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Emotional labor refers to controlling one’s emotions to carry out the demands of one’s job. For example, a nurse may have to soothe a sick patient while being berated with demands. A waiter may have to smile and serve rude customers as he struggles to service many tables. The mismatch between one’s genuine feelings and outward behavior can be distressing and draining, especially if it is consistent.

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term emotional labor in her book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, published in 1983. She defined the term as displaying certain emotions to meet the requirements of a job.

Since then, however, the term has broadened to describe emotional labor in all contexts, including relationships and families. This often pertains to women, who tend to take on more emotional and household responsibilities in families. This is sometimes called emotional work.

What Is Emotional Labor?
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Emotional labor refers to the effort and control it takes to display the organizationally appropriate sentiment—whether that’s cheerfulness, compassion, discipline, or neutrality—when personal emotions run counter to those expected and required. It’s labor because there’s emotional dissonance—a mismatch between expected and felt emotions. And it’s high stakes because it happens at one’s job and potentially affects one’s livelihood.

Employers expect employees to regulate their emotions in specific ways during interactions with customers, co-workers, and managers. This includes expressing emotions they don’t feel, like enthusiasm when hearing about a new project they’ve been assigned, or suppressing their true feelings, like anger when a customer insults them. This is done to create positive feelings in customers or clients so that the business succeeds and employees keep their jobs.

How do people perform emotional labor?

Emotional labor can be performed in two ways: surface acting and deep acting. Surface acting is when employees display the emotions required for a job without changing how they actually feel. For instance, a service person might be annoyed to recite the daily specials all night but they smile to make their customers feel welcomed and cared for.

Deep acting is a more effortful process in which employees change their internal feelings to align with organizational expectations, producing more natural and genuine emotional displays. For instance, someone may be going through a difficult time and feel distressed. They take a few minutes to put their personal feelings aside and remember the purpose of their job, why they like it, and how they contribute positively to the lives of others, and then act from that mindset.

What are the effects of emotional labor?

Regularly acting in ways that are inconsistent with how one actually feels can negatively affect mental health. The cumulative effects of masking one’s true feelings include exhaustion, burnout, stress, job dissatisfaction, and turnover. 

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Emotional Labor in Different Contexts
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Emotional labor was originally defined as managing one’s emotions to serve one’s job. But the term has broadened within society and now refers to managing emotions in any context, including within a relationship, family, or on social media. This is often undervalued as a form of care and support that comes at the expense of the person’s comfort.

How does emotional labor manifest in relationships?

In relationships, emotional labor can manifest when one person has to manage most or all of the emotional elements of a relationship, such as initiating discussions to resolve conflicts, maintaining relationships with or appeasing other family members, managing all childcare responsibilities, such as cooking meals, shuttling them to playdates and activities, scheduling doctor’s appointments, putting them to sleep, etc. A consistently unequal division of emotional labor, and the resentment it elicits, can significantly tax a relationship.

How can I balance the emotional labor in a relationship?

The first step in ensuring that both partners take on equal amounts of emotional labor is to discuss the topic. Explain what you’ve observed and how you feel about it. In some cases, the person may not have realized all the work you were doing. Explore what tasks can be assigned to your partner or family members so that the emotional workload is equal, and continue to assess the situation over time to maintain the right balance.

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