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Women in Work: emotional labour - the second side of work

April 06, 2017
Written by

Matthew Bardsley


Written by

Maddie Alvarez

Welcome to Women in Work, a four-part Bold Thinking series examining the unique role of women in the workplace. The series brings together the constantly evolving role of women in the workplace and the unique perspectives of our staff.


Whether you are a brand-new hire or a seasoned industry veteran, think about the last time you were in a job interview. In addition to asking about your skillset, professional experience, and academic background, your interviewer might have asked about your “soft” skills: if you feel like you’re good with people, whether you know how to diffuse tense or emotional situations, or if you can support your team when the pressure is on.

In this installment of Women in Work, we’re exploring an unspoken, and oftentimes undocumented part of an employee’s tasks at work: emotional labour. This is the way that our emotions and our ability to influence the emotions of others, are aspect of what we offer as employees and coworkers.

While the concept of emotional labour is still relatively new to the corporate world, it’s been explored to a greater extent in the academic community. Both men and women will be familiar with the tasks we identify as emotional labour, and there are gendered implications to who performs it. Maddie Alvarez, a coordinator at NATIONAL Calgary, brings her academic background in sociology and social anthropology, to provide insights on how emotional labour affects women at work.

Why do you think emotional labour is sometimes taken for granted despite the high level of work and energy required to perform it?

In the context of women at work, this really comes down to the gendered implications of emotional labour. There’s a lot of emotional labour required in the workplace to keep things running smoothly, from diplomacy to empathy and beyond, and oftentimes these duties are overlooked. But when they aren’t carried out, people notice and the impacts pile up quickly. Women are assumed to be naturally better at providing emotional support to those around them, so I think there is an assumption that [for women] performing emotional work is a natural task. This essentialist view is a standard that effects and ultimately harms women as a demographic. It’s absolutely taken for granted, because it’s assumed to be “easy” for women to do it, and a natural extension of the nurturing, emotional support roles women are also obligated to play outside of work.

Emotional labour is, at its core, a decidedly academic concept; as a young woman transitioning from the theory-heavy environment of university to the hands-on, applied environment of a public relations firm, did you find this concept rang true?

The best part of sociology is that as soon as you grasp a concept, you start to see everywhere, especially in your own life. Even though some of my understanding comes from theory, I regularly hear about unacknowledged emotional labour from my female peers in the industry, and my friends and family. In the larger context of the working world, emotional work in inherently gendered, and it’s typically women who are held to a separate standard of emotional behaviour. The expectations around their professional work remains, and so in some cases women are performing two sets of duties in a single role.

At NATIONAL, consultants use theories from our Visionary Leadership Model (VLM) to become trusted advisors of our client, and better consultants overall. It’s a really valuable program that guides some of the emotional management that goes into these client-consultant relationships, because our professional relationships start by taking on our client’s problem as our own. As consultants, we perform emotional labour as an integral part of our business, whether it’s doing a favour for a colleague or listening to the frustrations and concerns of our clients.

Typically, what kinds of emotional labour activities are assumed to be the domain of the woman/women in the office?

On a structural level, it’s common to see human resources, low-to-mid-level management, administration, and mentorship tasks allocated to women. In a workplace environment, women are expected to take on tasks pertaining to social activities and morale boosters, and do most of the listening, sympathizing, and consoling at the peer-to-peer level.

Female leaders are held to a double standard, and are expected to play a nurturing, motherly role when it would never be expected of their male bosses and coworkers. As more women assume leadership roles and continue to break ceilings, I hope it will be easier for organizations and employers to look beyond a singular leadership style, and not see these activities as gendered.

In your opinion, how does this gendered understanding of emotional labour – and the expectations/preconceptions about who should perform emotional labour – impact your own career development?

I’m really conscious about coming across as positive and cheerful, even on tough days. I reflexively apologize. I offer colleagues a sympathetic ear if they’re dealing with a difficult client, or have a challenging situation at home. I consistently worry that I’m talking over someone, or if I’m “nice enough.” Most of the time, we perform these tasks because we genuinely want to help the people around us. These are essential tasks in being a good colleague, but it’s important to make sure that the result of these good intentions is mutually beneficial.

The reality of emotional labour is that it is a huge, multidimensional concept – one that doesn’t neatly fit into a single category or action. My piece of advice for women in work managing their own emotional labour: don’t feel the need apologize if you need to turn down emotional labour that comes at the expense of your professional well-being or mental health.

Emotional labour is a hard concept to nail down, but it’s gaining momentum in the academic and corporate communities. There is more and more research on the subject that shows this work is just as difficult, complicated and essential as the tasks in our job descriptions. The expectation of this work is inherently gendered, and learning about emotional labour is a great opportunity to take a closer look and what you expect from all and any of your colleagues. Emotional labour an integral part of being a kind, considerate coworkers, and building the enduring partnerships that make our business successful.

To read previous articles in the series click the links below:
Women in work: #MomBoss
Women in work: the parent trap

——— Written by Matthew Bardsley, Consultant and Maddie Alvarez, former Senior Consultant, NATIONAL Public Relations


Written by Maddie Alvarez

Women in Work: #MomBoss
March 23, 2017