KGB Dots

Emotional Labor in Business

I’ll admit: the term “emotional labor” as it applies to the workplace just recently appeared on my radar, thanks to Fast Company. Labeling a long-lived type of activity and responsibility intrigued me, so I dug a little deeper. What I found was still intriguing, but the conversations have a huge, glaring gap, and that is a discussion about how the “costs” of emotional labor – in terms of finances and wellness – are clearly different in a woman-owned business.

Gwen Moran, a contributing writer at Fast Company and author of this article, described emotional labor in its original context as managing emotions to make the people around you comfortable. Alicia Grandey, an industrial-organizational psychologist at Penn State University who studies how people manage emotions, described emotional labor in the most relatable way. In a Quartz at Work article, Grandey shared this explanation of emotional labor: “It’s kind of like when you get a gift and you don’t really like it, and you have to still smile and act nice because otherwise your Aunt Bernadette would be offended. But you have to do that all day long. Not only that, but it’s explicitly part of your job. It’s tied to your wages and outcomes, and if you don’t do it, there are consequences—like you could lose your job, or you could get in trouble. And it’s with strangers, for the most part.”

The articles related to emotional labor that I have read specifically call out how women are expected to carry most of the burden of emotional labor – planning social occasions, taking meeting notes, carefully rephrasing emails so as not to offend anyone, being the go-to person colleagues always want to bounce ideas off of (flattering, but exhausting) and so on. However, none of those articles discussed emotional labor in women-owned or women-run businesses. Is that because the phenomenon is greatly minimized or perhaps doesn’t exist in these businesses at all? As a woman, I have known and worked through plenty of emotional labor. And as a woman who has owned a business for 25 years, I would like to think that my experience has influenced my company culture in a way that it doesn’t have room for emotional labor.

A contradictory opinion from Haley Swenson, shared a year prior to Moran’s article, strips away the PC shellac of “emotional labor” in an attempt to truly identify what emotional labor is, and why the things we find annoying don’t count as such. Swenson pares down emotional labor as “simply the management of feelings (your own or someone else’s) to accomplish a goal,” and she chastises those of us who consider labeling what are normal, everyday pain points of life as emotional labor. Because, from her perspective, they aren’t. And I found myself agreeing to the root of her argument: if something requires labor and happens to produce emotion doesn’t make it emotional labor. For example, when I’m writing a crisis communications plan for a client, it requires labor (read “work”) and it generally produces myriad of emotions, like concern or caution. Those emotions do not transform that activity into emotional labor. Even if the associated emotions were amplified or more dire, such as fear, writing a crisis communication plan still doesn’t count as emotional labor.

So, where does emotional labor exist? According to Swenson, it doesn’t exist; however, it is a sign of a very real problem – a societal pattern of consistent inequity – that doesn’t require a new label.

What do you think of emotional labor? Does it exist and have you experienced it? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Share them with me by commenting below, or contact me directly at Katie@kgbtexas.com.

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