Event Recap: WIN SF x Lydia Kim, Towards A Better Framing of Emotional Labor

In January, WIN SF teamed up with Lydia Kim, who runs her own strategy consultancy, for an evening of presentation, discussion, and activities around the reality of emotional labor in women’s lives.

  • Have you ever pretended not to be offended, frustrated, or angry so that a meeting could continue, so that a conflict with a boss could be avoided, or so that a family get-together wouldn’t be “ruined”? Then you’ve done some emotional labor.

  • Are you the one who always plans every detail of the family vacations around everyone’s preferences but your own, arranges celebrations for office birthdays, or does most or all of mentoring at work? Then you’ve done another kind of emotional labor.


Lydia argued not for the eradication of emotional labor, but for the sharing and valuing of it; that more of us should be doing the work of emotional labor, and doing a better job of it, more of the time—and that facility with emotional labor may be a cornerstone of the kind of leaders who create the safe, magnetic workplaces that encourage risk-taking, experimentation, creativity, and innovation.

Almost 50 women gathered to hear about the origins of the term emotional labor, its importance in social and professional life and in the innovation field, and what it costs us, both collectively and personally, if it isn’t acknowledged, valued, and rewarded. Afterwards, the group broke into twos and threes to practice applying an abbreviated design sprint methodology to reframing our own approaches to real instances of emotional labor.

A modern framing of emotional labor

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild first coined the term “emotional labor” in 1983 and discussed its consequences in her book The Managed Heart. She was referring to “the management of emotions to get the job done,” and positing that this labor was the hallmark of service work, which is largely performed by women.

More than 30 years later, the concept has re-entered the vernacular and become a topic of discussion once more, but it remains largely the work of women: service workers, retail workers, content moderators, teachers, nurses, social workers and honestly, any woman who works in an office setting.

Lydia expanded that original definition so that it included the work that comes from caring: the work of managing one’s emotions and the very real work that comes from having emotions like caring.

Women of color, disabled women, queer women, and low-income women perform additional emotional labor that is entirely different in both scope, frequency, and nature: it is the emotional labor of helping others feel comfortable around us, of being offended but not showing it so “the work can go on,” and quashing conflicts (internally, mostly) before they can register with the larger group. All of this adds up to people of color paying an “emotional tax” of specific stressors felt and managed in addition to those of being a woman in the workforce.

Why we need to be more explicit about emotional labor

Emotional labor, when it’s not acknowledged or valued, is costly: there’s a collective cost in the form of missed opportunities for emotionally intelligent leadership. We need leadership that is aware of, good at, and values emotional labor, and makes sure that it is something expected of everyone and something that is trained for, hired for, and rewarded.

The opportunity cost for individuals can be that we spend so much time doing unacknowledged emotional labor that we don’t spend the time we need to cultivate our own skills, talents, and passions. We may not care for our own emotional health enough if we are so busy providing emotional labor for others. We may experience exhaustion and burnout yet keep going, which can create or exacerbate anxiety or depression or other physical and psychological ailments. And it can cost us socially, and even sexually, when we hesitate to ask for emotional labor ourselves, have a hard time accepting it, or endure a range of personal sacrifice when we do not feel comfortable saying no to implicit and explicit demands for our emotional labor.


Practices for a better emotional labor practice (for everyone)

There are a few ways to address emotional labor so we are more conscious of it, and value it more. We can:

  • Interrupt it: Create a gap between the impulse to engage in emotional labor and the execution of it. This gap may be tiny at first, but any distance between the impulse and the execution can give us the space we need to proceed more intentionally and consciously, whether we choose to do it or not.

  • Speak it: Speaking about the reality of emotional labor is the first step to making it explicit, so it can be acknowledged. We need a cultural practice of making it explicit so we know just how much we are being asked for, and how much we are doing. It is difficult to value something that is unnoticed, and it is impossible to reward something that is not valued. Asking others to speak their emotional labor requests also helps create an interruption which gives people the time to consider the ask, and decide whether or not to do it.

  • Start with ourselves: If you are uncomfortable doing for yourself that which you readily do for others, that is something to investigate as well! It is difficult to care for others and to regulate our emotions when our own well has run dry. Pay yourself first: care for yourself.

  • Share it: It’s important to share the emotional labor, so the people around us at work and home also become fluent in how to do it. Men who are not able to do the work of keeping up social connections suffer an intensity of loneliness that leads to depression, anxiety, mental disorders, and even heart disease - so if you have men or boys in your life who you care about, let them do emotional labor! Not only will sharing the work help everyone appreciate just what it takes to engage in daily emotional labor and how important it is, but it will also create a culture where a reasonable regulating of one’s emotions is the norm, and where doing the work of caring is the expectation.


Workshop activities

Armed with this working definition of emotional labor, attendees paired up to identify instances of emotional labor in their lives, and help one another reframe the instances as opportunities to include others in the work of collective caring. Then we identified women in our lives who are excellent at preserving their boundaries (paying themselves first) and the superpower that helped them do so; most likely, we notice those qualities because we have them ourselves.

The evening was a lively one with lots of animated discussion and questions, and lots of energy in the partner activities! We look forward to continuing the discussion and the practice, both on our own and in support of one another.

Written by Lydia Kim. Photos by Rita Fernandez. Huge thank you to WeWork for hosting us. Event support by Atika Sanchetee, Rita Fernandez, Alexandra Lee, Lizzie Azzolino, Bridget Sheils.

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