Cover of the book The Managed Heart

What is emotional labor?

The truth is this: you live at work.

If you count up your hours at work and add in your commute, and then add the time you spent becoming trained for your career, you’ll find that you’ve spent more time at work than in any other place.

Basically, we all live at work — yet for the most part, the work world has not created a comfortable, healthy, or emotionally well-regulated place for us to be.

People in the work world mistakenly call emotional skills soft skills, yet we’ve all been in jobs where the emotional atmosphere was managed so poorly that every possible aspect of our work suffered. Emotional skills are not soft skills at all; they’re actually the most important skills you and your colleagues can possess.

Understanding emotional labor, or emotion work

In her groundbreaking book, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, sociologist Arlie Hochschild (pronounced hoke-shilled) described what she termed emotional labor, or the way that our emotions and emotional states are a part of what we offer (and what is expected from us) in the workplace.

In her book, Hochschild gives examples of flight attendants, who must not only understand the intricacies of their physical work on airplanes, but must also display an open and welcoming demeanor to passengers. Even when passengers are bad-tempered or overly needy, part of the work of a flight attendant is to continually offer a calm, helpful, and accepting face to the public. This is a flight attendant’s emotional labor, or emotion work.

As we’ve all witnessed, flight attendants are expected to continually offer an accommodating and empathic demeanor to passengers, no matter what perils or discomforts occur. These demeanor rules are not often written down explicitly in job descriptions, yet they’re an intrinsic part of what we’ve all come to expect (and even demand) from flight attendants.

The concept of emotion work helps us look at the often unwritten emotional and empathic behaviors that are expected in the workplace – and at how workers must manage their own emotions and the emotions of others in order to get their jobs done.

For instance, if airline passengers are rude, a good flight attendant won’t generally snap at them or ignore their requests – as he might if his friends or family treated him rudely. In fact, his normal human reactions would be frowned upon by the airline (and by the other passengers); therefore, part of his job description (stated or not) is to deal with rudeness and bad behavior in unusual or even counter-productive (to him) ways.

This is emotion work – and in many cases, it’s actually enforced empathizing. It’s a part of our social contract with each other, and though it’s not usually spoken of explicitly as a job requirement, emotion work is possibly the most important job skill you possess.

Identifying emotion work

As you go through your day, pay attention to the emotion work-loads of the people who serve you, and of the people you serve. You probably have very specific (yet unspoken) emotion-work rules for the owners and employees of businesses you visit (especially restaurants and stores), even if you’ve never set eyes on anyone in the business before.

One common unspoken expectation is that people in service or retail positions must be empathic toward you. They must appear to care about you and your latte, or your shoes, or your cat food – even if they’re making minimum wage and you’re wealthy; even if they’re well-dressed and you just got out of the gym, with your hair still wet. It doesn’t matter what you look like or how you behave; your position as a customer – or even as a potential customer – entitles you to free empathy and respect.

Our expectations of emotion work and professionalized empathy are so ingrained that you and I know how every person in a business is supposed to behave toward us, how we’re supposed to behave toward them, and how other customers are supposed to behave toward all of us. Everyone has a very specific part to play, and a very specific emotional and empathic performance that is required.

Strangely, most of us have never been taught explicitly about any of this emotion work; we’re just supposed to have picked it up through cultural osmosis.

At your own job, notice that you have very specific emotion-work and empathy-work expectations for yourself, your co-workers, your employees and contractors, and your managers or bosses. Yet even though we all know how everyone is supposed to behave, this knowledge is not made clear, and a great deal of the trouble I see in the workplace revolves around emotion work that is either not being performed (the problem employee), or is being performed but not valued (the overburdened or heading-for-burnout employee). The workplace can become really miserable when there is trouble in the sphere of emotion work.

In many cases, emotion-work rules require that we behave inauthentically with each other and toward ourselves. This is not to say that emotion work is inauthentic or toxic: Empathically speaking, we all work to help each other function (and become more skilled) in the social world, and sometimes that means displaying emotions we aren’t currently feeling, or hiding the ones we are.

This everyday emotion work is what makes relationships flow smoothly; it’s what helps us relate to and support each other, and it’s what helps us mature as emotional, social, and empathic beings.

However, emotion work is work, and if you’re not aware of how much emotion work you do (or how much you expect others to do for you) then empathic burnout is a very real possibility – for everyone.

As you empathically observe your social world, take an inventory of your emotion work and ask yourself: Is your emotion work being acknowledged by anyone? Is it appreciated? Is it even mentioned? Could it become more intentional and conscious? And does it work for everyone?

Emotion work is an intrinsic aspect of empathic skills and relationship skills, but it tends to be entirely unconscious – and as such, it tends to live in the hidden world of nuance, undercurrent, gesture, and unspoken expectations. However, there are ways to bring emotion work out of the shadows.

The hidden nature of emotion work

As a hyper-empathic young woman, I was hilariously out of place in most jobs, because emotion work was so obvious to me that I didn’t realize other people couldn’t see it. I tended to get into trouble because I would say out loud, “Hey, why don’t you tell your assistant the truth instead of doing his work for him?” or “That person is working way past her abilities, and she’s bossy and snappy because of it,” or “This person is heading for burnout, and if you call yourself a manager, then manage the tension in this job and protect your workers!”

Empathically speaking, I saw poorly-managed emotions, unjust emotion work, and enforced, inauthentic empathy as an integral part of the unprofitability and inefficiency of the workplace – but until I discovered Arlie Hochshild’s work, I had no vocabulary for it.

There is a saying that “People don’t quit their jobs; they quit their managers,” because the fact is that very few people leave jobs because their daily tasks were too hard; instead, they often leave because the emotional and empathic environment was not managed effectively.

Because I had so many persistent questions about the emotionally backward atmosphere of the workplace, I went back to school and minored in the Sociology of Work and Occupations. I also became certified in Career Testing & Guidance and in Human Resource Administration – because I wanted to know: What do the experts say about this situation?

After four years of study, the answer is this: The experts say almost nothing.

HR Administration programs spend almost no time on emotion work and enforced empathy requirements. There are one or two psychology courses sprinkled here and there, but the main focus is on administrative organization first, and then on how to deal with problem employees second.

There’s very little understanding of the nuances of emotion work and how an unsupportive workplace can create an unproductive emotional atmosphere … which will then create problem employees!

There’s also very little awareness of why people burn out: A great deal of the burnout response-and-prevention I was taught focused on making jobs more varied and interesting, but there was almost no awareness of the burnout potential of unsupported, unjust, or unreasonable emotion work and enforced empathy.

In my Career Testing & Guidance education, I also found no mention of emotion work or its effect on morale, workplace mood, or turnover.

Sadly, the Career Guidance professionals whose job it is to help us find work, and the HR professionals who oversee the workplace (unless they’ve done extracurricular study) usually have no direct education in or understanding of emotion work, which is the central empathic skill that makes the workplace functional (or, more commonly, dysfunctional).

There is a saying that “People don’t quit their jobs; they quit their managers,” because the fact is that very few people leave jobs because their daily tasks were too hard; instead, they often leave because the emotional and empathic environment was not managed effectively. It’s an ongoing problem that the workplace as an entity truly hasn’t got a handle on – at all.

As such, I didn’t pursue Career Guidance or HR after I finished my certifications; however, I did discover precisely why emotion work problems in the workplace aren’t being addressed: we’ve got on-site specialists and processes for almost every other problem that exists in the workplace, but the Human Resource professionals whose job it is to humanize the workplace have not been reliably educated or trained to understand emotion work. Therefore, it’s up to you and me.

Bringing emotion work out into the open

People who are empathically sensitive tend to pick up on – and then address – the emotional troubles around them. However, because emotions and emotion work live in the shadows, these people are often unaware that they are engaged in perpetual, unpaid emotion work.

They tend to clean up the emotional troubles around them. They mediate between people who can’t get along. They jolly the grumpy people in their lives. They translate emotions into easily digestible chunks for their emotionally unaware friends and family. They calm people who are unaccountably anxious. They always seem to sit next to the person who wants a confidante. People tend to bring them their troubles and their conflicts … and no matter what their stated job description is, they have a second full-time job: They’re professional emotion workers and professional empaths. But because their work isn’t identified as work, they may burn out.

Managers can learn to identify the emotion work-loads of their employees, and in so doing, they can begin to create emotionally well-regulated workplaces that won’t burn people out unnecessarily.

Creating an emotionally well-regulated workplace

There are literally thousands of books and programs that target the workplace in terms of how to make people into better workers and thereby increase productivity. Empathically speaking, most of them fail because they ignore unsupported emotion work and how it can drive behavior, undermine relationships, and lead to needless burnout.

The key to making the workplace work for everyone is to create an emotionally well-regulated and comfortable environment where emotion work-loads are recognized, appreciated, and managed appropriately. With these goals in mind, here are five approaches to help you create an emotionally aware and productive workplace that is respectful of the social and emotional needs of everyone.

  1. Be aware of the emotional work-loads your colleagues are experiencing at home. In many (or most?) workplaces, people must manage their own emotions, soothe the emotions of others, and offer free empathy throughout the day. This is fine if people arrive at work with a surplus of energy and emotional vigor, but emotion work can be fatiguing if people are being emotionally drained at home. Sometimes, the workplace can be an oasis of order and reliability in the area of emotion work – it can even be an escape from a chaotic or troubled home environment – but if it isn’t, please be alert to the pre-existing social and emotional condition of your colleagues.
  2. Support people’s right to be comfortable at work. Most workplace layouts are based on cost savings or on current fads in workplace organization – but they are rarely focused on the reality that people live at work. If people work 30 to 45 hours per week, they spend more time at work than they do at home or with their families. Only the bedroom competes with the workplace in terms of how much time people spend there. People spend their lives at work, and they should be physically and emotionally comfortable in their workplace environment.
  3. Identify any unsupported emotion work and acknowledge it openly. Observe the emotion-work requirements at your workplace. Which emotions are required in interactions with customers, suppliers, and co-workers? Is empathy toward customers required but unacknowledged? Is there any support in place for people who are overwhelmed or heading for empathic burnout? And what kinds of emotional rules are active, and for whom?
  4. Identify and acknowledge any emotional inequality. Are the emotion rules different at different levels of the organization? Can one person or group display (for instance) anger, depression, or anxiety, while everyone else must display only happiness and complacency? Is empathy available to everyone, or is it only directed at clients and customers? To the extent that you can, acknowledge any unequal or differential emotion work and empathy work openly.
  5. Welcome open conversations about emotion work. Burnout occurs when people aren’t allowed to identify or speak about their emotion work or their professionalized empathy requirements. You can help to create a healthier, more functional, and more emotionally well-regulated workplace if you can simply speak openly and honestly about emotion work and empathy.

You can become aware of the emotion work you do, and of the emotion work and empathy work you require from others – and in so doing, you can create a more supportive, emotionally well-regulated, and truly workable environment for everyone.

People who are empathically sensitive tend to pick up on – and then address – the emotional troubles around them. However, because emotions and emotion work aren’t clearly understood, these people are often unaware that they are engaged in constant, unpaid emotion work.

They tend to clean up the emotional troubles around them. They mediate between people who can’t get along. They jolly the grumpy people in their lives. They translate emotions into easily digestible chunks for their emotionally unaware friends and family. They calm people who are anxious. They always seem to sit next to the person who needs to unload. People tend to bring them their troubles and their conflicts … and no matter what their stated job description is, they have a second full-time job: They’re professional emotion workers and professional empaths. But because their work isn’t identified as work, they may burn out.

Managers can learn to identify the emotional work-loads of their employees, and in so doing, they can begin to create emotionally well-regulated workplaces that won’t burn people out unnecessarily.

The truth is that you live at work. We all do. And we all deserve to live well, to be treated well, and to have our emotion work valued as the essential work it is!

21 Responses

  1. Kim Illig
    | Reply

    Well, dear Karla McLaren, now you truly have me all fired up! Once again, thank you so much for bringing articulation to unseen realities. I’m also so thrilled to see that there are others that are articulating the unseen as well. I so hope that this is something that you will bring to your new certification training! Know that I will share this post. Blessings to you and yours.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Kim and Kallie, and thanks for your comments.

      Kallie, oof, your business sounds like a very emotionally unregulated environment, and I’m sorry you’re experiencing this. I often think that in this lay-off prone world of businesses failing and trying to put a happy face on it (the term “rightsizing” is particularly egregious), that we need to have regular grief rituals in the workplace for all of the losses, failures, and deaths of relationships and business visions.

      Of course this won’t happen, but I can dream. Your business is avoiding grief, and plastering a happy face on it isn’t going to help. It’s a silly idea, but it’s causing suffering, and for that I’m very sorry.

  2. Kallie
    | Reply

    Karla, this post is hitting home as I just had a dream this morning that pointed the the likelihood that I’m processing lots of other people’s emotions at work during some major layoffs (over 90% of the people in our department). It still isn’t clear to me where/how I’m doing this, except that I tend to be blamed – instead of recognizing that many are feeling this way when I raise concerns for how everyone is being treated. We apparently have a “don’t tell us when we are hurting you or your colleagues” policy. Anyway, this posting resonated with me and has given me a bit more to think about.
    Thanks much for your work and I hope to be in one of your classes again at some point.

  3. Amy
    | Reply

    Thank you for writing this piece. I am literally preparing for a management training session tomorrow in which I am going to do some very basic work about emotions and emotions in the workplace. I hadn’t formulated all of my thoughts yet and this piece helps tremendously.

    In my organization we are very explicit about the emotion work we expect of each other relative to customers and peers. WE actually have a written and taught “recipe”. What I think that we don’t do enough is acknowledge the energy and skill that this requires and provide the support that will help people do the work without burnout.

    Also do you have any suggestions for what people can do with the personal inauthenticity that they may be faced with after days of retail work? It sometimes seems like we’re asking people to do things that could be emotionally harmful for them in the quantities that they have to perform.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Amy and thanks for your question. Understanding the emotion work you require of your staff is great, and it’s also good to provide direct support for their professionalized empathy requirements.

      I would suggest regular Conscious Complaining sessions, including Conscious Complaining with a Partner, and developing an Ethical Empathic Gossip practice so that people can express themselves regularly rather than merely being receptacles for the needs of others. All of these are explained in The Art of Empathy if you’ve got a copy.

      When I do the Emotion Dynamics work, I also look at the leading emotional requirements for the organization (specifically, which emotion(s) is required, and what issues reliably arise when that emotion(s) is over-emphasized?), and then develop specific self-care, environmental, and communication practices for the team so that they can do their difficult work with as much support as is humanly possible. I’m the OSHA for emotion work!

  4. Kim Illig
    | Reply

    Dear Karla, how in the world did you surmise my business is in a very emotionally unregulated environment? What parts of my business needs to have grief rituals? I would not assess myself as you appear to do. Oof indeed! Please make sure it is my business you are referring to. Thank you and blessings.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Oh hi Kim, no, I made a mistake — I was answering too many comments that day! It’s was Kallie I was referring to, and I changed the message above to put her name on it. Cheers!

  5. Kim Illig
    | Reply

    I thought that might have been the case. Thanks for making the correction. Blessings.

  6. Laura Be.
    | Reply

    Thank-you Karla!!! I’ve been doing this my whole life. When I was growing up, I noticed all my friends would come to me when they were depressed. Over the year’s people would say, you should be a therapist, and I would say, I’ve got too many problems of my own. Even my parent’s would come to me with their troubles. I came in emotionally sensitive. Emotional intelligence is huge and still so discouraged amongst many of the intellectual ones. I’ve chosen self employment most of my adult life because of this. I do my regular job and the other emotional one and am appreciated and yet, have learned along the way to take better care of me. (: Love your work.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thank you Laura, for your professional emotion work! I’m glad you’re taking good care of yourself, and it’s interesting: I’m finding that self-employment is kind of a regular occurrence for highly empathic people. Hmmm, maybe we should form a union! Empaths, unite!

  7. Vicki
    | Reply

    Hi Karla – thank you for reminding me that empathy for customers/in my case, patients since I work in a hospital is greatly overlooked. The administration does not ever speak directly to patients and therefore they seem to have a disconnect when it comes to addressing concerns. Those of us who do speak directly to patients and empathize with them daily have a much better sense of how things could be better for them. I do find that almost amazing in itself after being here ten years and seeing nothing much change – they will continue to go around in circles and wonder why their patient numbers are dropping and patients report that they are not happy with the service. I would try to enlighten them but again, they just do not seem to want to “listen” to anything but the agenda they have deemed appropriate for the day … thanks for all your wonderful work – love ya, Vicki

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thank you for your wonderful work, Vicki! Tino and I are creating a program called Healthy Empathy for the health care community, because there’s such empathy trouble there. Some people are doing intense empathic heavy lifting while others are turning off their empathy, or focusing on the bottom line so hard that they create a miserable environment for everyone. It’s time for Healthy Empathy!

  8. Bill
    | Reply

    Thank you again, Karla! Great post. Really opened my eyes. I’ve heard Seth Godin speak of Emotional Labor, good to get the specifics of it, especially from a wise and finely-tuned empath such as yourself! No wonder I hated my old job, it was empathically exhausting working with a super anxious boss!

    My growing edge is still holding boundaries when interacting with grumpies and complainers. It feels so yucky for me interacting with them sometimes! Still learning how to empathize with their feelings without agreeing with their negative thoughts. Any feedback appreciated!


    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Bill, that is hard for a highly empathic person!

      Empathy is about tuning into to how the other person is feeling, but what if they’re feeling something yucky?

      I’d have to ask whether the feeling actually is yucky for that person? I mean, do they enjoy being cranky and grumpy? Does it serve them? Their emotions have a purpose, and they’re telling them something important. What is it?

      When I’m around people whose emotional functioning is very different from my own, I shift into anthropologist or sociologist mode and study how their emotions are working for them.

      This is a way to set boundaries and help my hyper-empathic body understand the difference between myself and others, but it’s also a way to remain empathically engaged, calm, and available.

      If the person is a regular acquaintance, I’ll share Conscious Complaining with them, or teach them about Ethical Empathic Gossip. People really need the opportunity to talk about what doesn’t work, and to share their difficult situations and emotions, yet there’s really no place for them to do that healthfully. These 2 practices can really help people bring consciousness and empathy to their difficulties — and they can also make them easier to be around for the rest of us!

      Conscious Complaining to the rescue!

      • Bill
        | Reply

        This is brilliant. Karla, thank you for taking the time to share your wisdom. I love this.

        “When I’m around people whose emotional functioning is very different from my own, I shift into anthropologist or sociologist mode and study how their emotions are working for them.”

        This makes me wonder then should I this almost ALL the time for almost everyone? There are very few people I interact with on a frequent basis (perhaps even on the planet??) that are highly functioning emotional ninjas. Haha – I mean those that can self-regulate and can return to a zero-point peaceful state. Being around people like that is totally soothing for me. I have a few friends who do that, and my nervous system calms down in their presence. But those people are few and far between. So then is it in my best interest for boundaries’ sake to put on my Columbo anthropologist hat to study these creatures from a healthy distance and empathize as best I can without taking on their yuckiness?

        I’m guessing that yes, I should. The alternative seems to A) hide out in my apartment and never interact with anyone or B) get exhausted getting stuck in everyone’s stuff or C) only interact with high consciousness peeps. My current strategy is to do all three, ha!

        Also love the idea I can share the Conscious Complaining / Ethical Gossip ideas with them.

        This dialog is totally opening up my mind. The “Establish Healthy Boundaries” idea always feels true, but HOW to do that has always been very evasive. I know you like to picture boundaries, which helps. But I like the distinction of playing sociologist / anthropologist. It’s way too easy for me to feel enmeshed with other people’s stuff. I think they can sense my Empath nature and seek my empathy like water in a desert!

        Hope we get to meet some day. 🙂

  9. Len
    | Reply

    Karla, I just finished reading your book “The Art of Empathy” and this is a book that I feel that I will reference for the rest of my life. I have learned so much. Thank you!!

    The topic of emotion work is what I struggle with at work. I seem to do a lot of emotion work for a co-worker; this person always rushes into my office telling me her problems when I am trying to work. I have no door to my office to shut off. I have tried headphones as well but she still continues to come in and just start talking. We go to lunch and I think that could be a time to talk but she proceeds to want to do it during the work day when I have trying to work. I have decorated my space to make me feel comfortable and to have less distractions as possible. I have experienced empathic burnout with this person, which I never realized was a term until reading the book. How can I create thresholds that can be noticed so I can get my work done with a co-worker that is always needing to share her problems, joys, date life, sorrows, everything with me while I am trying to work? At times I just have to come straight out and say that I am busy and that we need to talk later. She always thanks me for listening so I feel that she appreciated it in a way but I am not really sure if she genuinely thanks me. She even jokes to say I am her therapist (although I really feel that she wants to think like I am). Sometimes all I do is sit there and let her talk and I just listen. She has to know how much empathic work she is putting on me daily or maybe she doesn’t and more so I think that she does perhaps but does;t care. Do you have suggestions on how to deal with a person at work like this?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Len,

      I’m not sure if your co-worker realizes how much emotion work she’s expecting from you — there seems to be a breakdown in communication or understanding. It could be that she thinks you’re a willing free therapist. Or she may not have clear social awareness.

      If you’re having difficulty setting boundaries — or having them respected — I suggest finding a third party who knows both of you and is willing to have an Ethical Empathic Gossip session with you about it. My questions for you would be: Do you enjoy this person, or is it entirely a chore to listen to her?

      If you enjoy her, it may be easier to tell her that you need to move conversations about her personal life completely away from the work day — or to a very specific time in the day. However, if it’s a chore, and she displays such neediness, it may be very hard to just say that you aren’t available.

      Do you have a fellow co-worker who could give you support and feedback so that you can shift this relationship to a more workable and reciprocal thing?

      • Len
        | Reply

        Thanks for your reply, Karla!! It is hard because she has even made reference to me being her “work therapist”before and I do think that I am a willing free therapist as you said in her eyes. So I feel that she knows how much she comes in and talks. It is a chore to listen to her because it is so much and it is daily and it is always all about them. I do not really trust her to be able to reciprocate back because she has burned me in the past but I do have an outside friend that can give me support and feedback and I usually participate in Ethical Empathic Gossip with them about her. Do you have any other books that you have written or suggest in dealing with people such as this in the workplace where you have to be around them and work with them daily?

        • Karla
          | Reply

          Hi Len. Okay, it sounds as if this person is not respecting your boundaries. Got it.

          What happens when you set them — or have you? I want to remind you that no matter how long a behavior has been going on, you can ask for changes in any relationship.

          This sounds like a boundary-setting issue, and this article might help. 10 Ways to Build and Preserve Better Boundaries

          Also, if you’ve got a functional Human Resources department, they should also be able to help. Or a manager? There should be someone there watching over the social condition of your workplace. If not, her behavior could be a symptom of a larger dysfunction in the social condition of the workplace.

          For you, though, setting boundaries seems to be key.

  10. Imelda Pearce
    | Reply

    I love you! Keep up the good work. I wish I had you in my life in1 976-1980, when I was working a job that was stressful to me because I picked up other’s feeling.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thanks Imelda!

      I wish I had known about this information when I was younger, too! It would have made my early working life a lot less painful.

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