“At its most basic level, all of this emotional labour is saying to another human being “you matter. I will take my time to show you that you matter.” ― Emotional Labor: The MetaFilter Thread Condensed
Emotional labor is an interesting concept, although you may know it better as the phrase “labor of love”. That phrase tends to be applied to something that feeds your passions or gives back to you in some way, whereas emotional labor is the flip side of the coin; the side of love (deep caring) that often depletes. Here’s an illustration of how this happens; ever masked or hidden your feelings about another person (or a decision) at work because you cared about how it would make someone else feel, or how others might perceive you if you gave voice to your thoughts? This level of self-management is emotional labor. Sometimes we use this for good purpose at work (holding back an unhelpful opinion) and sometimes we hide behind it because we feel too vulnerable or it is unsafe to bring up (career limiting move).
Arlie Hochschild defines emotional labor as the way we hide or mask our own emotions to present “a publicly visible facial and bodily display within the workplace”. Emotional labor is exhausting when ever-present, causing us to unwittingly create a double-life; being one person in our personal lives and another one at work (or within parts of our work). That toggle can feel inauthentic and usually points to an unhealthy compromise of values or principles. This gap can be difficult to live with long-term, causing frustration, self-loathing and other negative outcomes, even impacts to health and well-being. Of course from time to time at work we all experience moments when it is best to keep our opinion to ourselves (I’d like to think even Mother Theresa mentally rolled her eyes every once in awhile), but having no freedom to professionally voice concerns, provide opposing views or bring up new ideas in your work is depleting. When this circumstance exists because you are unsure about what is the best approach; too afraid to even check if this would be career limiting or you doubt how skillfully you could navigate a vulnerable conversation, you end up with unmet needs.
Everyone has felt the pinch of needing to do something that scares him or her, to act on good and moral purpose. What stands in the way of having vulnerable and difficult conversations is the cost of the emotional labor they require. “No real conversation can ever occur without some vulnerability. We often close the conversation by forcing ourselves to make a premature and sometimes absurd choice between our self preservation and having a proper conversation, even when there is no real threat to our person.” (David Whyte, The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship). It points to the need to get very honest with yourself and see what is being called for; continue to remain inauthentic and silent, or take the time needed to figure out how best to approach the conversation(s) that would clarify or alleviate your gap in authenticity and address what you need at work. A good starting point is to think about what it is you share with this other person. Emotional labor is based on deep caring (yours and others), and if you reflect objectively and with compassion on the other person, there is likely something you share with her or him that deeply matters to both of you. Start there, and then determine how best you could approach this person from a place of shared meaning, allowing you to be both authentic and empathetic in your approach, open to an exchange of ideas and options to build both your relationship and a better outcome. This takes practice, but is well worth the investment as emotional labor pays off over time.
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It’s deeply uncomfortable and takes on a life of it’s own with your manager and peers; sometimes expressed as care and concern for you and/or subtle judgment. This is an experience many of us can relate to; not to say that we shouldn’t ever cry at work; tears (of happiness or sadness) may always be a part of something you care deeply about (including work) – it’s about having the option to choose if you want to cry about something or not (rather than it just happening to you). Frustration at work is common, but when it goes on unchecked it backs-up on you emotionally and makes itself known in ways you did not intend. No one likes to lose their temper at work, or cry, or feel the urge to disappear for a few hours because everything became too much. Frustration leads to overwhelm and when we ignore the signs that things are becoming overwhelming we leave ourselves at risk of having an awkward and ill-timed emotional demonstration at work.
Frustration is a sign of unhealthy compromise coupled with unmet needs. Maybe your budget just got slashed (but expectations on what you will deliver didn’t). Maybe your hours of work have crept up to unsustainable levels (with no light at the end of the tunnel to signal the end of the long hours is near). Perhaps you expressed your concerns or needs to your manager and had them fall on deaf ears (no one else seems to care or to be impacted, except you). Whatever is causing you deep frustration, the warning signs come in advance to help you get in touch with what needs to change to allow your well-being to remain in tact. These warning signs come in many varieties and strengths. From unrelenting heartburn, sleeplessness or other symptoms that can impact your health (in the long term) combined with a real lack of motivation to go into work (possibly even dread). If left unchecked whatever you are compromising or missing in your working life will show up emotionally when you least expect it. Pay attention to the signs; let them help you to figure out what is not working for you.
While having conversations with your employer about changes that would reduce/eliminate your unhealthy compromise and address your needs (or unanswered concerns) can feel incredibly vulnerable, it is the only way to tackle your frustrations. Waiting for your boss or organization to “get it” only gives you one more thing to be frustrated about (HINT: if they “got it” you wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place). If you want your employer to help you, you have to help him/her understand what you are experiencing, and open the door to dialogue, finding a compromise that you can both live with. Not everything is possible (i.e. you can’t work 20 hours a week and get paid for 40), but small, meaningful changes can make the difference between spontaneous tears of frustration and figuring out how to make it work at work with your well-being (and self-esteem) intact.
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Our working lives call on us to make many compromises, some we have a hand in shaping and others we do not. When your work no longer makes you happy, or if your workplace becomes something that forces you to make the hard decision “this job or my well being”, then an interesting conversation occurs; “What exactly can I live with?”. If you are (or have recently) been asking yourself that question, stay with it; as difficult as this exploration can be it is fertile ground for what comes next.
With this question you will pass through the gates of “Is it me?”. Checking to see if you are being too emotional, making a mountain out of a molehill, confirming your strengths and weakness, looking to understand if you are being too picky or too needy. This is a lonely dark place in this exploration; remember to take the light of objectivity with you before traveling here. You have skills and abilities, do you get to use them, grow them or share them? You have needs and values, many of which should not be compromised. What are they? Have conversations with loved ones you trust to explore this place, as doing this only in the dark recesses of your mind may mean you get lost and stuck here with the echoes of “I am not enough” to keep you company.
If your basic needs are consistently being compromised at work, it’s time to see what can be done. And this is perhaps the most vulnerable part of this process; reaching out and having candid conversations with your employer from a place of humble and uncompromising truth. See what is possible. Be open to learning some new things about yourself you may not have had access to before you began this conversation. Things will take time, give yourself a window to explore and see movement. If nothing changes then you need to consider something more. Stay or go?
If the pros outweigh the cons and you choose to stay, how do you do that happily? Happiness resides in the difference between giving in and letting go. When you give in and abdicate your happiness to stay with an employer, you become a victim; someone helpless and dependent on this entity called employment. When you can accept your employer for their flaws (keeping in mind that you determined the many benefits you receive from this relationship outweigh the costs), you are able to let go of the picture you had in your mind of what you wanted, or what you had, and become dedicated to building a new picture, an objective picture. No employer is perfect and the only constant is change. Being able to recognize your job/organization/boss isn’t going to support you in all the things you need is part of the process of letting go. Becoming a willing participant in shaping this relationship is the act of letting go. Objectively accepting “what is” at work is the way to open a new path forward, working together with your employer as an equal partner, to explore what is possible.
“You don’t drown by falling in the water; you drown by staying there.” ~ Edwin Lewis Cole