What Emotional Labor Really Is and How it Saps Your Mental Health

Updated: Sep. 07, 2021

Emotional labor is an extra, psychologically exhausting effort that people have to make at home, work, or in relationships.

What is emotional labor?

Emotional labor is what it sounds like—extra work. But in this case, it has to do with carrying a heavier load in terms of a psychological burden.

The term was first defined in the early 1980s, and over the years, has often been used to mean the extra mental work a person—usually a woman—does in managing a household.

For example, some people think it includes all of the forethought and planning that goes into everyday life, including coordinating schedules, remembering birthdays and doctor’s appointments, and coordinating children’s activities and schoolwork.

However, that’s not exactly right. Emotional labor is actually more-so a process in which people have to regulate and manage their emotions to interact with other people, whether it’s on the job or in a relationship.

“It is the mental activity required to maintain relationships and ensure smooth running,” says Canada-based sports and exercise psychologist Haley Perlus, PhD.

When the term was first defined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, it was all about the workplace.

For example, emotional labor would include people who work in service industries who must consistently convey positive responses to the people they serve, says Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, a clinical and consulting psychotherapist in New York, and author of Fragile Power: Why Having Everything Is Never Enough.

Hokemeyer cites the HBO show, White Lotus as a good example.

“In it, Murray Bartlett plays a deeply troubled hotel manager who must constantly meet the insatiable demands of entitled guests with a veneer of grace, humility, and enthusiasm,” Hokemeyer says.

Other examples include employees who work in Apple stores, customer service agents who work call centers, and front line restaurant employees.

Essentially, emotional labor manifests daily in the lives of people who are paid to interface directly with customers or clients. It’s a pressure to always be “on.”

Perlus adds that emotional labor can also happen in other work environments as well.

“It can include hiding your inner emotions and flashing a fake smile, or pep-talking yourself, known as deep acting, to try and change your emotions to display positive emotions authentically,” she says.

Today, however, the concept also refers to personal relationships and can include times when you have to regulate your own emotions to manage other people’s feelings. (Here’s how to spot a liar.)

Here’s what you need to know about recognizing emotional labor at work and at home. Plus, how and why you should avoid it.

How to recognize emotional labor

Young start up business people sitting in a window and talkingTom Werner/Getty Images

Although it doesn’t fall under the traditional definition, emotional labor in romantic relationships or friendships is also possible.

This might include one partner that assigns or does all the chores, or one partner that makes plans, remembers special events, and runs the family’s schedule, while the other partner does not, Perlus says.

Another example includes one partner or friend who compromises more than the other or one partner who always takes care of the children’s emotional needs, while the other does not.

One of the best examples of emotional labor is when one person constantly vents, leaving the expectation that the other person always needs to be available to listen.

“If one person or partner feels exhausted and ends up feeling their friend or partners feelings for them, this can be emotionally exhausting and a sign of emotional labor,” Perlus says.

Here are some signs you are experiencing emotional labor on a job or in a relationship:

  • You feel exhausted
  • You feel burned out
  • You feel anxious
  • You feel pressure to perform
  • You catastrophize, which is when you think the absolute worst thing will happen, even if it’s highly unlikely or illogical

(This is how to set boundaries.)

How emotional labor harms mental health

Businessman Listening To Colleagues Over Lunch At Restaurant TableTom Werner/Getty Images

Emotional labor, like physical labor, is exhausting. It drains people of their energy since they are constantly under pressure to perform, according to Hokemeyer.

“And similarly to injuries caused when we are physically exhausted, emotional labor causes injuries to our psyches when we are placed in a position of chronic performance,” he says.

“These injuries manifest in various forms of addictive behaviors and of acting out in negative ways in our romantic and family relationships.”

One study in the journal Personnel Psychology looked at how the daily effects of emotional labor spill over to life outside of work. The researchers examined the influence of day-to-day surface acting on emotional exhaustion, work-to-family conflict, and insomnia in a field study of 78 bus drivers. They found that this acting increased each of these experiences at home.

Prolonged emotional labor may simply lead to all-around burnout, according to a 2018 review in the Yonesi Medical Journal.

“There is a time and place to ‘show up’ emotionally for your team (at work and at home) to help the motivational climate, productivity, and overall peace and happiness,” Perlus says.

“Still, we must create space to feel what it is we are truly feeling, positive or negative, high or low.”

She says that’s the key to develop emotional resilience that can only work to improve relationships.

How to combat the burden of emotional labor

To release the burden of emotional labor, Perlus recommends that you:

  • Talk to your friend or partner about how you are feeling.
  • Use “I” statements, so they don’t feel as if you are hurling insults at them, but rather that you are expressing what you need and how you feel. For example, you could say something like, “I feel like I put a lot of time into the housework, and I need more help with it,” or “I feel overwhelmed when I’m constantly needed for emotional support.”
  • Set boundaries in your relationships in general. (Here are 13 easy phrases to help set boundaries.)
  • Explain how the emotional labor is affecting you and tell your friend or partner the changes you would like to see.

“This way, you can bring awareness to the challenges you are facing, and hopefully, your friend or partner will change their actions, and you will no longer feel the burden of emotional labor,” Perlus says.

And when it comes to emotional labor at work, Hokemeyer recommends releasing tension through physical exertion.

“So take a walk around the parking lot after work, go for a run, do 15 minute of stretching,” he says. “Talking to others is also important to discharge the negative energy you pick up from being overly burdened by emotional labor.”

Check out these simple stretching exercises for stress relief.