Full-Time Work for Zero Pay: The High Cost of Emotional Labor

I had a very interesting discussion last week over coffee with a good female friend. We were talking about our grown children and how they approached parenting, marriage, and shared responsibilities. How much we wanted our kids to do things better than we did. How life has changed, yet remained so much the same as when we were raising kids and juggling life’s responsibilities. The big topic that came up was emotional labor. How one partner in a couple, especially with kids involved, usually takes on more responsibility for making sure things get done and how they get done, as in the cliché, “making the trains run on time!”

My thoughts immediately ran towards those clients with whom I’ve worked who were carrying not only work obligations, but the additional emotional and mental obligations of running things from the home front, too. In my experience, most of these folks are women. Interestingly enough, in same sex couples, there is also usually one person who bears this responsibility as well, regardless of their gender or employment status.

Emotional labor is the mental work that it takes to keep a household running. It happens in the office, too. It’s not about the act of buying the cake for a co-worker’s birthday. It’s about who remembers and keeps track of when those birthdays are, planning for them in advance, ordering the cake, setting aside time to pick it up, and even remembering whose name goes on it!

In a home with a family, it’s not about who actually cooks dinner. It’s about who decides what’s for dinner, plans ahead to make sure all the ingredients are available, what individual family members’ likes and dislikes are, and what time the meal should be served according to everyone’s schedule.

Emotional labor is not about just buying a birthday gift for an upcoming party to which your child is invited. It involves remembering that a gift needs to be purchased, what kind of gift should be purchased, setting aside time to get to the store, time to wrap the gift (and oh, do we have wrapping paper?), and coordinating how your child will be getting to the party and getting home according to the family schedule – and don’t forget who has to remember to RSVP! That’s the emotional labor behind what seems to be a simple task.

In my productivity and time management coaching with busy professional women, whether they’re working in an office or running their business from home, the added burden of being the household (or office) emotional manager makes their lives significantly more challenging and stressful and reduces productivity in general. Often, I hear their partner’s response is to say, “just ask me for help when you need it.” But “helping” means you don’t have primary responsibility for the work. Having to think to ask for help just adds another tick in the box for the household manager’s job.

The solution is clear communication. Sitting down and discussing what needs to get done and how it needs to happen is crucial. Often the other adult in the household (or others in the office) have no idea of the labor you’ve been carrying and what goes on “behind the scenes.” These conversations can be challenging, and it can be difficult to do it in a non-accusatory way. Sometimes the solution may be to just let things happen without your advance thought and planning and allow the negative consequences to shake things up a bit and promote awareness of the issue. That’s hard to do, especially when you’re accustomed to being in charge. But letting go of responsibility and letting the chips fall where they may could be just the jolt your family (and partner) needs!

Acknowledging the enormous mental energy that comes with running your household and family is only the first step. Sitting down to actually delineate all that must happen behind the scenes is the next step. Make an actual list – this will take a great deal of time and thought – of ALL that you do to keep things going. Your partner may have no idea how much you’re actually doing! Establishing clear communication and relinquishing control as the master event planner may take some time and effort now, but will benefit everyone in the long run.

About Lisa Griffith - Professional business organizer and speaker - Griffith Productivity Solutions

About The Author

Lisa Griffith is a speaker and consultant who provides services, both on-site and virtually, to help busy professionals organize their offices, systems and calendars. In addition to business and home office organizing, productivity and time management coaching, she provides workshops & seminars for business and community groups.