Is “emotional labor” wearing you out?

Let’s face it: Improving your food and fitness can feel nearly impossible without strategies for mastering sleep, stress management & recovery. So, in this post, I’ll be sharing all things “SSR.” To help you—or your clients—create the strongest foundation on which to build food and fitness success.

The Hidden Cost of Emotional Labor

Imagine you work in customer service.

All day long, you have to pretend to care deeply about the often minor concerns of your customers.

Even when people are rude or offensive, you must adopt a pleasant tone and stick to the script, which in part, involves you repeatedly saying “I’m sorry” for a situation that isn’t remotely your fault.

Especially when all you really want to say is…

A GIF of Chandler Bing from "Friends" shaking his head and saying, "I'm not even sorry!".

That’s emotional labor.

The term was coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, PhD in the 1980s. 

It refers to the internal work needed to actively manage the feelings of others, as well as control our own response. And it can be emotionally exhausting.

A GIF of David Banner from TV series "The Incredible Hulk," trying not to turn into the Hulk while on the phone.
Clearly, Dr. David Banner has to expend a lot of emotional energy to keep from turning into the Hulk. (Anyone who’s ever worked in a call center can totally relate to this GIF.)

To no one’s surprise, emotional exhaustion can be a major barrier to eating well and moving more. And it can lead to serious issues for your mental health. 

“If you don’t account for this emotional labor, and recover from it appropriately, you risk burnout,” says Krista Scott-Dixon, PhD.

Is Emotional Labor Wearing You Down?

Consider whether any of the following are true for you:

✅ As a marginalized person at work, you feel you must plaster a smile to your face in order to not provoke coworkers who make hurtful, demeaning comments.

✅ You work in a profession that involves concealing your own emotions and prioritizing the emotions of the customer or client. Think: healthcare, law, customer care, social work, and you guessed it… coaching.

✅ You feel exhausted at the end of the day because you spend most of it graciously placating cranky people. (Hi, caregivers of small children and teenagers.)

✅ You’re the one in your household who’s always smoothing ruffled feathers, playing peacekeeper, and trying to ensure everyone gets along.

How to Recover… Emotionally

Ask this question: Where can you find emotional rest? 

(BTW, if you read the term “emotional rest” and immediately thought, “That sounds WONDERFUL,” then chances are, you’re doing a lot of emotional labor.) 

Boundaries are a key tactic, especially if you’re a high-empathy person who often takes on others’ problems and emotions. 

A GIF of a character from the show "Heels" saying, "We're gonna fix that."

Deciding when—and when not—to get emotionally invested is a skill that most coaches (and caring people) have to work to develop.

Maybe you could…

▶ Create better boundaries between home and work. This is different for everyone, but the key is to brainstorm potential actions and then experiment.

▶ Have a crucial conversation with your family to explain you’re no longer the United Nations for their infighting.

▶ Schedule 5-minute breaks into your workday so you can slam a medicine ball into a wall (concrete, not drywall), take a walk around the block, or stare out a window.

▶ Get extra support—for instance, from an ally or therapist who understands your struggles.

The best form of emotional recovery will (surprise!) vary from one person to another. 


Gaining awareness is the first step…

… because many people suffer through emotional labor without ever putting a name to it or considering the toll it’s taking. 

That makes it an invisible stressor that goes “unseen.” And unseen problems tend to go unsolved—and get worse over time.

Finding the balance between emotional labor and emotional recovery often isn’t easy. But Dr. Scott-Dixon says that adopting a unique (and kind of cool) identity might help.

Think of yourself as an “emotional athlete.”

  • Athletes do hard training sessions, but they also take plenty of recovery.
  • Athletes also have coaches—and often more than one.
  • And finally, athletes don’t leave the gym or the field, only to do more intense exercise at home.

In order to keep showing up for the emotional Olympics each day, you’ll need to ensure that your own emotional health is well-protected and well-supported.

You’ll also want to be mindful of all the emotional labor you do in both your professional and personal life. Make a list, and start to account for it with actions that help you recover.

Of course, emotional labor is just one invisible stressor that affects your ability to eat well, move more, and live better. 

If you want to learn more ways to help others (and yourself) improve their physical, mental, and emotional health, consider my Sleep, Stress Management, and Recovery Coaching. (Learn more here.)

Until next time,
David Giddings

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