Emotional Labour

Published by: TELUS Health,

You might have heard the term “emotional labour” in news clips and articles, but there’s a lot of confusion about what emotional labour is. This article will help you define emotional labour and understand how it might appear in your life.

What is emotional labour?

Sociologists define emotional labour as the idea that people need to manage their emotions, keeping feelings to themselves in order to exist within society. For example, a woman may feel she needs to remain silent as she’s being catcalled because she’s worried for her safety. In another case, a barista may feel he has to smile at a rude customer because it’s part of his job.

Emotional labour at home

Although it can apply to many situations, much of the conversation about emotional labour recently has been around feminism and the additional mental strain that housework and household management places on women. Even in instances where a heterosexual couple may split household tasks evenly, some believe that women often carry the additional burden of managing this work.

Examples of emotional labour within families include:

  • remembering and making arrangements for birthdays, anniversaries, parent-teacher conferences, and doctor, dentist, and vet appointments
  • being the sounding board—or the person who takes on a lot of the mental load of listening to everyone’s problems—without the expectation of being heard when they need it
  • coordinating communication with teachers, coaches, and other parents
  • being in charge of keeping the refrigerator and cleaning and household supplies, like toilet paper and toothpaste, stocked
  • managing family relationships by creating and keeping track of social occasions, buying birthday presents, and writing Christmas and thank-you cards for shared gifts
  • keeping track of emergency items such as knowing where the spare set of keys are, what vital passwords are, or where medical information is kept
  • being the parent who deals with children’s issues such as emotional disagreements, bullying, or homework help

In all of these examples, the person performing these tasks is doing unpaid work that takes up time, effort, and mental space. Not only can it be mentally exhausting, but that work often also goes unrecognized.

Researchers have shown that this type of work is more commonly assumed to be a woman’s role. This is due mostly to the stereotypes that women are more empathetic and understanding, and therefore “better” at this type of work. However, men can also feel overwhelmed when there’s an uneven division of emotional labour.

Why is emotional labour important?

Understanding emotional labour is important, as it can help you navigate equality in your relationships. People who talk about emotional labour often mention the “mental load”. If you’re worried about cooking, cleaning, and parent-teacher conferences, you might feel too overwhelmed to ensure that you’re taking your own mental health into account.

Your partner may sense that you are overloaded and express a willingness to help by saying, “Just let me know what I can do.” However, this can be another way of asking you to perform the emotional labour of identifying and delegating tasks. This can reinforce your status as the person who’s in charge of these types of duties. Instead, it’s important to come to a solution where you can have an open discussion and truly share the emotional labour within your family.

Correcting the imbalances of emotional labour

Research shows that couples who share work equally are happier than those who don’t. Here are some ideas for how to start the conversation and begin to share the responsibilities in your household:

Have open conversations about emotional labourEvery couple is unique, and what works for one couple might not work for the other. That’s why it’s important to have conversations with your partner about what emotional labour you are both doing to ensure that labour isn’t being shifted onto one of you unfairly.

If your partner comes to you with a complaint that they’re bearing more of the mental load, try not to take it as a personal criticism. Instead, recognize it as a suggestion that the relationship could be improved. Taking this feedback personally can put the other person into the position of assuring you that you’re not the problem—meaning they will perform more emotional labour.

When you split household responsibilities, share all parts of them. It’s important that you trust your partner to complete all aspects of the planning and execution of their roles. If your partner takes care of making sure the kids go to their doctor’s appointments, allow them to do all parts of this task including booking the appointments, driving the children to the appointment, and performing any follow-ups. Recognize that they may do some tasks differently than you.

Look for solutions outside the homeIf cleaning your home is overwhelming and you can afford it, you might consider hiring a cleaner to come once a month. If paying bills on time requires reminders and focus, set your bills to autopay.

Check-in with your partner regularly. When circumstances change, you might need to re-assign labour roles. Situations like the death of a parent, being made redundant at work, or a child leaving for college might mean that you or a partner might need to lean on each other a bit more for support. Communication is key!

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