We know about physical labour and mental labour, but what is emotional labour?
Picture this: a friend asks you for help or support with something, but you’re feeling emotionally drained. You send them a message saying you can’t be there for them, citing a limited capacity for emotional labour. Is it a normal expression of boundaries? Or a cold injection of workplace terminology into your personal relationships?
That’s the debate lately, following a viral Twitter thread from self-described “feminist wellness educator” Melissa Fabello.
In the thread, Fabello breaks down how grateful she was that the friend asked her permission for reaching out.
“Asking for consent for emotional labor, even from people with whom you have a long-standing relationship that is welcoming to crisis-averting, should be common practice,” Fabello wrote.
She also notes how friends often “unload” on her without warning and that’s unfair, before offering up a “template” to use in response to friends, which reads a bit like a fill-in-the-blank out-of-office email.
Fabello is basically arguing if you’re going to ask a friend for emotional support, you should ask permission. And if you’re being asked for emotional support, it’s ok to say “no.”
Both criticism and validation of Fabello’s take was swift. Many people praised her for advocating for setting space and distance in relationships.
However, she was also criticized with equating basic human decency and friendship with a work transaction.
The “template” for a response was also quickly turned into a meme, with many pointing out you can talk about setting personal boundaries without evoking emotional labour.
What actually is emotional labour?
There are a lot of ways of defining emotional labour. Writing for Mel Magazine, Tracy Moore defined it as “Free, invisible work women do to keep track of the little things in life that, taken together, amount to the big things in life: the glue that holds households, and by extension, proper society, together.”
However the term was originally coined in 1983 by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her book The Managed Heart”, who used it to refer to the work of managing one’s emotions people in certain professions — usually women — have to do.
“It is the work, for which you’re paid, which centrally involves trying to feel the right feeling for the job,” she told the Atlantic in 2018.
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For example, when I go to my weekend job as a cocktail server at a comedy club, I have to smile and laugh, no matter how bad my day was or how terrible the on-stage comedian is. In a more extreme example, it also refers to the work workers must to do swallow and “grin and bear” things like racist remarks or sexual harassment in the workplace.
Hochschild said that while she agreed some personal relationships can involve emotional labour, she was “horrified” by the way the term was being misconstrued to refer to everything from friendships to housework, and that often removed it from the essential class-based origin of it.
“No rest, no break”
University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business professor Daniel Skarlicki says people in those emotionally demanding professions have to adapt, or often come in prepared with the skills to handle that labour. But he also says there are benefits to an expansive definition of emotional labour.
“I think it’s absolutely a common human experience. And I think we experienced emotional labour whenever we’re trying to accommodate someone or trying to work with somebody else,” he told HuffPost Canada.
And he says it can be draining on people.
“Considerable emotional labour leads to what we call emotional exhaustion. And we feel exhausted, we feel depleted,” Skarlicki said. “When we feel there’s an accumulation of labour and we haven’t had a chance to release it, we do feel a sense of loss of engagement.”
He said that applies in workplaces, as Hochschild suggests, but it has equal applications in personal relationships and social media use. He pointed to increasing emotional stress in people’s lives as a reason to talk about emotional labour and how to deal with it.
“There’s no rest, there’s no break, there’s no opportunity to recover your depleted resources,” he said.
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Skarlicki pointed to strategies like mindfulness, meditation and self-reflection as ways to help cope with emotional labour burdens. And while he recognizes the criticism of treating personal relationships like transactions, he also pointed out how people need to take care of themselves, too.
“You know, you’ve got to survive,” he said.
Skarlicki said it’s ultimately good that we’re having a conversation about emotional labour — even if it leads to heated Twitter debates.
“What I really like about emotional labour and the conversation we’re having about it, is it acknowledges that we are full human beings. We are affected by cognitive stimulation, but we’re really, really affected by emotional stimuli,” he said.