Emotional Labor Explained
What comes to mind when you hear the term “women’s work?” Cooking? Cleaning? Child rearing? Breath easy; I’m not asking you if you agree with the concept. Moreover, I’m not asking the question as lead-up for a debate on gender roles, or the ideal way to raise a family or run a household. My interest is tied to a subset of these actions: the invisible, but weighty, emotional load of household management. Emotional labor warrants the attention of all productivity-minded people, independent of gender, life stage or family status.
My friend and colleague, author and organizing expert Regina Lark, just published a TedTalk on the topic of invisible emotional labor. I encourage you to take a listen. Her talk was the inspiration for this post, and much of what I’m discussing comes from her speech.
Broadly, Regina defines emotional labor as: “remembering, reminding, planning, noticing and anticipating.” Yes, it’s the physical — prepping meals, washing clothes — but it’s also the corresponding mental labor involved in managing the family and/or home. It’s thinking through a diverse weekly menu, remembering that the sports uniform needs to be clean for the weekend game, etc. Though less obvious than physical, daily household chores, the emotional element that makes the entire system work — the loving, caring and anticipating — is often the most taxing.
All Households Demand Emotional Labor
Historically, emotional labor has fallen to the women in cisgender relationships. As such, I anticipate your answer to my opening question might vary based on your age, gender and/or current living arrangement. Older men and women will likely relate more to the loaded term “women’s work” despite the fact that, for several decades now, the traditional gender roles in marriage have, thankfully, been blending and blurring. These days, some men are the primary cook in the home. Some women, the primary breadwinner. Some marriages are same sex., and all couplings aren’t legally bound. Some households are filled with children, some are empty nests, and some are childless. But make no mistake: all households demand emotional labor to keep things running smoothly.
How to Lessen the Load of Emotional Labor
Emotional labor is valuable, critical, necessary work. It cannot — should not — be eliminated, but rather delegated to ensure that no one party within the household is unfairly burdened. Delegation is one of the sharpest tools in the toolbox of personal productivity. It’s efficacy is just as potent in the home as it is in the workplace, though it’s application is slightly nuanced. As Regina Lark explains, the work of emotional labor should be delegated because it needs to be done, and the delegation should NOT be based on who is best at the task. Go ahead, read that again. This distinction, in my opinion, is the heart of Regina’s advice. So let’s talk about what emotional labor delegation might look like.
“Make the Invisible Visible”
Maintaining one, concise to-do list is foundational to personal productivity. Chances are your emotional labor responsibilities do not reside on a to-do list. Regina encourages us to make the invisible labor visible to all people benefiting from the work. Yes, she’s saying list out all the things. Here’s a theoretical short list:
- Maintain an active shopping list
- Plan meals
- Plan for upcoming social engagements (i.e. birthday gifts, hostess gifts, minor’s transportation to parties, etc.)
- Keep up with birthdays and important milestones
- Assist in preparations for child(ren)’s upcoming tests/projects & follow up with them after the fact
- Schedule pet care
- Stay on top of routine home and car maintenance
Delegate Emotional Labor
List complete, next comes the crucial action: dividing out the work equitably among the members of the home. Remember, the assignment of these tasks should not be based on skill level. Even a five year old can pick up a room ahead of guests arriving for a birthday gathering. To be certain, one added benefit of lessening the burden of emotional labor is creating opportunities to build life skills in others. Every adult in the home should be able to make a pot of coffee. Everyone tween-ish and above can learn how to start a load of laundry. Children can feed pets. Either parent is capable of, and should be, checking in with their children on school work and social interactions.
Communication is Crucial to achieving effective delegation.
As in the business world, communication is pivotal to achieving successful delegation in the home. As you consider the delegation, solicit input. Is someone passionate about doing something in-particular? Is someone truly the only one who can complete a specific chore? Be careful here. It’s true, for some situations, teaching may be required, but the teaching will be worth the effort. Keep an eye out for weaponized incompetence! It’s often a teaching opportunity in disguise, or a signal that “someone” should assess their definition of a job satisfactorily complete, i.e. You always tell me I don’t load the dishes right in the dishwasher, so I’ll leave that to you.
Once you’ve established your list of invisible labor and corresponding delegated tasks, review it with everyone involved. Ask for feedback. Have you forgotten anything? Is something ambiguous? The list needs to be clear. Everyone should understand their responsibilities.
Capitalize on Digital Tools and Smart Systems to Facilitate Effective Planning and Delegation
We’ve covered the big picture above. Next, l’ll offer some tactical solutions that could be congruent with your living situation.
- Implement a family calendar everyone has access to. I like the Google calendar for this purpose. The family calendar should include things like social engagements, practices and game schedules, haircuts, doctor’s appointments, birthdays, etc. Everyone should be responsible for reviewing the calendar and considering conflicts when proposing a new event.
- Maintain a shared list platform (Evernote, Google, Notes App, AnyList). It will depend on your family’s situation, but lists for the following might be useful:
- Christmas/Birthday Gifts – ideas and individual wish lists
- upcoming appointments/services in need of scheduling by a parent
- Establish a portal and system for storing information you anticipate family members needing access to. This will enable others to self-serve or at least assist in the primary obligation. The system might include:
- a medical file on a shared family drive to house things like vaccine records and physicals
- a digital recipe file for the favorite family meals
- a pet file for storing vaccination records
- a tax file (digital or physical) for storing receipts throughout the year
It’s Time to Spread Out the Work
As my colleague Regina says, it’s time to disrupt the paradigm. No one member of the household should carry the full burden of invisible household labor. Spreading out the work not only lessens the unfairly assigned load on one member, it also fosters autonomy and self-esteem for all members of the household unit. Perhaps best of all, delegating emotional labor strengthens the relationships of the here and now (i.e. mom and dad) and those yet to be formed (the children’s future housemates).
I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on delegating emotional labor!
Sara Genrich, CPO® is a Productivity Consultant, an Evernote Certified Consultant, and the creator of the Organizing@Work for Success Workshop. She’s committed to providing real-life solutions so her clients have time to focus on the things that really matter.