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If you’re a feminine or minority presenting person in the workplace, then it’s likely you may have experienced this phenomenon, without necessarily being able to put a name to it. Let’s talk about the naturalisation of emotional labour.

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An Academic History of Emotional Labour: 

The term emotional labour was first coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book ‘The Managed Heart’. Emotional labour is defined as: 

trying to feel the ‘right’ feeling for the job and trying to induce the ‘right’ feelings in certain others 


The ‘right’ feeling for a job can be as simple as maintaining a smile, being polite and professional. The naturalisation of this refers to the social processes that make it seem unquestionable, unavoidable, and even desirable. Therefore, the naturalisation of emotional labour can be understood as the implicit assumption that this labour will come ‘naturally’ to those who are most likely to perform it, and if you’ve been following along, you may already have an accurate guess as to what group this is inferring. The historical ordering of gender roles in society has shaped the gender expectation that caring abilities and emotional maintenance come spontaneously to a woman’s character. If workplaces do not consider or recognise the cultural and societal phenomena that is naturalised emotional labour, then it is harder for women, non-binary, and other feminine-presenting persons to identify these pressures and to struggle against the unequal gender divide of emotional labour.  

Workplace Implications of Naturalised Emotional Labour:   

Naturalised emotional labour in the workplace can take the form of dealing with gender expectations of how a woman ought to behave. Rose Hackman of The Guardian recites an anecdote of a young woman named Devin who had recently started a corporate PR role. Devin attended an all-male marketing meeting and confidently expressed her ideas on a direction she believed would be best for the company to take. Instead of receiving any reward or positivity, she was met with stunned silence. Devin was told that she was ‘very abrasive for a woman’.  

The gendered expectations for women in the workplace are clear: don’t be too assertive, so you don’t overstep the patriarchal perceptions of femininity. Emotional labour in the workplace is the reality and consequence of failing to abide by how we expect a woman to behave. Navigating gender norms as well as doing what’s actually in your job description is an example of the clear gender divide of emotional labour. In office spaces, this can physically manifest as toning down certain personality traits as to not seem too assertive and unfeminine, being openly receptive to superiors and colleagues relying upon you to give advice or entertain, despite what you may personally be feeling or experiencing in that moment, or becoming a de facto secretary, i.e., remembering others’ calendars and work information that is not an explicit part of your job description (St. Catherine University).

While in singularity, these acts of care are not inherently bad, it’s the expectation that a certain group can and will do this for others that is problematic and reinforces structural and systematic gender inequalities of the workplace. 


Naturalised emotional labour in the workplace can also include what women and queer people are expected to put up with. In Leah Cohen’s TEDx Talk, Leah recalls her personal experience of an event of which she received an out-of-the-blue comment regarding her gender, ethnicity, and age. She admits how she just laughed this comment off in order to move the situation along and to not make things uncomfortable. With this behaviour, Cohen says that she performed the emotional labour of mitigation.

This is where understanding intersectionality as well as understanding naturalised emotional labour is vital. The comment that Cohen had to mitigate singled out several parts of her identity, all used to ‘other’ her. Women, POCs, and queer people may choose to ‘laugh it off’ because it is safer to do so. By understanding intersectional justice, a term that describes the way inequalities based on different parts of social identity, i.e., ethnicity and gender, intersect to create unique dynamics and effects, first coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989, we can better understand the extent to why and how emotional labour may affect different groups of people in the workspace. 

 By performing acts of unregulated emotional labour in the workplace, long term, it will diminish capacities for work. From the mitigation of harassment to unrecognised care work, these acts of unpaid labour distract women, queer, and other minority groups from being able to ‘get ahead’ and focus on their own aspirations and goals (Forbes, 2018). Therefore, if organisations tackle naturalised emotional labour in the workplace, it will be beneficial to all parties. By doing so, offices will foster a safer psychological state for the women and queer people, it will replenish depleted mental capacities, and improve productivity and the business’s social sustainability. 

Naturalised emotional labour disproportionately affects women and queer individuals within organisations, so what can managers and senior members of staff do to alleviate the pressures of an unequal distribution of emotional labour?  


How Can Managers help the unequal emotion work?   

Though the phenomenon of naturalised emotional labour in the workplace is persistent; there are an array of ways in which managers, leaders, and senior members of staff can regulate, recognise, and alleviate the pressures of emotional labour that are unfairly shouldered by certain groups of people. To realise how emotional labour is naturalised in the workplace, companies can assess the potential gender differences in how men and women are viewed and what is implicitly expected of them. Once these gaps are understood, they can be challenged. A way to close the emotional labour expectations between men and women is to offer emotional agility training to all employees as opposed to assuming that certain groups can fill the breaches.

Managers can offer training for employees to start identifying, expressing, and healthily discussing their emotions. Companies should encourage positive experiences such as praise for good work and affirming that empathetic behaviours, which may include helping or supporting colleagues, are appreciated and important. By offering emotional agility training and recognising emotion work, managers and team leaders are empowering those who do perform emotional labour whilst generating safer and more sustainable work environments.

An additional way to ensure that work is not so emotionally laborious is to align a worker’s personal values to their practical work roles and tasks (St Catherine University). By aligning a worker’s role to their own personal values, a company is achieving what can be understood as ‘deep acting’. Deep acting is where the emotions that are portrayed actually resonate with what someone is feeling inside; deep acting is therefore less emotionally taxing than the alternate ‘surface acting’. Surface acting is more draining because the employee is essentially portraying false emotions to fit the brief of what they believe their work role is asking of them. 


By recognising the existence of naturalised emotional labour in the workplace, organisations can help to lift the burden of shouldering unrecognised work from the backs of women and minority individuals. The emotionally demanding tasks of dealing with harassment, facing gender stereotypes, and handling extra care duties in the workplace can wear down the mental abilities of those who do a lot of emotional work, ultimately affecting the organisations they work for.

However, strategies can be undertaken to relieve this unequal pressure, such as emotional agility training, the recognition of emotion work that employees are doing, and the alignment of personal values to practical work roles and tasks. By recognising the phenomenon of naturalised emotional labour and thereafter tackling it, companies can produce psychologically safer work environments which will allow for higher emotional and mental well-being and increase overall productivity.