Why I do so much emotional labor at work

even though I’m not sure it’s worth it

Last week, the podcast Dear Sugars had a show on invisible and emotional labor. It’s taking care of people and dealing with all the messy feelings and unseen details that go into daily life. It made me think about how much emotional labor I do at work and how fraught it is for me to do this kind of unrecognized, work that most men are unaware of.

The podcast guest, journalist Gemma Hartley, wrote an article in Harper’s Bazaar called, “Women Aren’t Nags — We’re Just Fed Up Emotional labor is the unpaid job men still don’t understand” that went viral last year.

I’ll address the invisible work in a different piece, but I wanted to write specifically about the emotional, or affective labor, I do in my role as a Chief of Staff at an early stage startup. Affective labor is work done to change how people feel about things. For me, this looks like a lot of meetings and a lot of listening. For example, I have weekly one-on-one meetings with three other people in addition to my direct report, and my dotted-line report in Beijing. (That happens at 7:00 AM twice a week.) In these meetings, I ask people about the challenges they are facing. There is a lot of venting, and I offer guidance and empathy. But, with all but one person, I’m not their manager, so I don’t have any control over their day-to-day work.

A lot of their frustration centers around my boss, the CEO, who is still in Beijing. He’s been gone for over a month now, working in the other office. So, I try and summarize what I call the “themes” from these conversations and share them with the CEO. Then I offer him guidance and support.

This work is exhausting.

My colleagues tell me they appreciate my support and guidance. So, I think it is worthwhile, but sometimes I feel frustrated because I am not necessarily able to fix anything. I also worry that my boss doesn’t recognize or value this labor. I worry that this is not a good use of my time and my energy. I worry that I should stay in my own lane and let people figure out their problems on their own. But, I’d personally rather work at a company with a strong positive team culture. So, I actively invest in building a culture where people can opening express concerns and give each other feedback.

I do this because working with teammates in Beijing, and watching them struggling to work with co-workers in Chungchun from a distance has been incredibly instructive. I’ve learned, business are about people.

It’s seems simple, but I can tell some people I work with haven’t figured this out, yet. I don’t know exactly what I thought companies were made of before this experience — maybe technology or money, but now it’s so clear to me that the team is actually the business.

In addition, working with our team members in China has shown me how important it is to have a relationship as a foundation, and then build process on top of that.

This is a great example of the old adage “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” attributed to management expert Peter Drucker. This means we can have the best operational processes in place, the finest SOPs, the best Trello Boards and Salesforce records, but if we don’t have a culture where people are motivated to put those tools into practice, it doesn’t matter.

This experience taught me that people aren’t just gears in a machine. If they don’t feel an affinity or sense of team comradery or if they don’t know you — if you are just an abstraction represented by a shared operations spreadsheet — then quality will suffer.

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Building Team Culture

“If we build the people, they’ll build the business,”
Brownie Wise, co-founder of Tupperware.

The second form of emotional labor I do is by trying to create team culture by trying to find commonalities among our team through learning and shared experiences.

Last week, for example, after a quick training on how to network, we bought tickets to the Tech Day Expo in New York. I thought that this would be the perfect way to help people build their confidence with networking and learn more about the tech industry all in one budget-friendly package. So, nine of us, the whole staff plus interns take Lyfts down to the piers. There was a huge line of people waiting to get into the conference center. So we got in line, and then we waited, and waited, and waited.

Periodically, a man in a blazer would run around yelling apologies and explaining that they were making badges one-by-one, but couldn’t go any faster.

After forty-five minutes, we got inside the conference center, and there was…. another line! Just as long as the first one. So, as a team, we gave up.

I called around and found a restaurant, Mamasitas, that could seat 9 people immediately. We ordered lunch specials and one of those gigantic 60 oz fishbowl margaritas with eight straws. It was basically a small punch bowl of slushy tequila. (I did not partake. I had a headache just looking at it.) But the team was pretty excited about that. Such extravagance! They probably enjoyed lunch more than they would have enjoyed Tech Day. So, it didn’t work out exactly the way I had hoped, but at least it’s a start.

This work, however, makes me think of Brownie Wise, a Vice President at Tupperware in the 1950s. She spent her career building up the business by inspiring an army of women to sell Tupperware. She built up the sales team and motivated women to sell Tupperware — a classic example of emotional labor. But in the end, she was laid off with little fanfare or severance, and she never reaped the full rewards of her efforts. The business owner, Earl Tupper, however, made a fortune. It’s a cautionary tale for any business leader, especially women. This is what I’m afraid of, spending so much time and energy building up a team but not being recognized for my efforts.

Are you afraid your team building efforts go unnoticed? Does your boss depend on you to build relationships? Do you do a lot of emotional labor at your office? Tell me in the comments below.