What is Emotional Labor?

© Steve Whiteford 2021

Recently when I was teaching my Emotional Intelligence workshop to a Covid-exhausted non-profit healthcare team, they identified Emotional Labor as a strong concern. It’s easy to understand why. The caregivers in this group were especially attuned to the need to stay positive for patients and their teams. And they often needed to deliver recommendations that their patients resisted or found emotionally challenging. They felt the pressure of putting on a smile and extending empathy when they were understaffed, scared, and exhausted.

It’s important to know the difference between Emotional Regulation and Emotional Labor.

Emotional Regulation is the skill of emotional self-management. It allows you to move and manage feelings in ways that embrace them and when necessary transform them: i.e., overcome fear, shift from debilitating sadness to open-hearted engagement, constructively use anger, etc. It requires curiosity, emotional self-awareness, motivation, and the technique to make a change.

Emotional Labor is distinct in that it may involve denying true feelings, going against personal values, or just plain faking it to charm others and get what you want. Emotional Self-Awareness is often absent, or over-ridden. There is no honoring of the original feeling. No attempt to interact with the information it is providing, other than playing whack-a-mole and slam it down. The drive is to cover it to make an acceptable impression. It is an unskilled response to vital information: feeling. It is a denial of your true self. The result is ultimately stress and burnout.

High performers across professions self-destruct when they consistently thwart emotional self-awareness and operate from a persona or emotional labor. Olympic Athletes, Actors, Rock Stars, Sales Stars, and Corporate Leaders alike can implode. What famous individual might you name? Emotional Labor is part of the myth of success and fame that is leveraged by its purveyors. It is a societal norm.

We recently had an incredible example of someone having the courage to take a stand against this lie. When Simone Biles stepped out of the Olympic competition to honor her physical and emotional feelings, she took a stand for all high performers who have been abused by the myth of mandatory Emotional Labor. She broke the mold in a big way.

Choosing Emotional Regulation is the antidote to emotional labor.

1.      Make it a habit to check in with feeling and thought. Bodily Sensation is often an emotional indicator. How does stress, sadness, or anger feel? What are your thoughts telling you?

2.      Allow yourself to experience the feeling. No need to dwell on it. Breathe with it and practice self-empathy. To feel is to live. A feeling is information. There are no bad feelings.

3.      Decide if making a shift would better fit the circumstances or enhance your health or effectiveness.

4.      Choose a coping action or strategy. – These actions or changes of perspective range from extremely simple to multi-faceted. You probably already do some. It’s a matter of remembering and taking a few seconds, or minutes to do something. Stretch, breathe, step outside – are a few. Wellness programs, Neuroscience, Psychology, Meditation, and Neurolinguistics provide numerous coping tactics.

Interestingly, receiving empathy is a great remedy for empathy fatigue. I discovered this in my research for my healthcare presentation. Simply being able to discuss and share about, stress and fatigue helps. We have a lot of stoic beliefs in Western society about workplace behaviors. One is that it is best to stay within the limitations of a “professional” persona. Many studies of healthcare environments have proven that old saw wrong. Other studies cite openness and simple vulnerability as key to team success. Friendly, warm exchange among team members about their shared reality heals. This was wonderfully demonstrate by the 2021 Women’s Olympic Gymnastics Team.

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