Emotional labor is for real

I rarely encounter the term emotional labor in the world of design, and that troubles me. In this brief post, I’ll explain why it needs to be part of our vocabulary.

I’m using the word design to encompass UI, UX, experience, service, brand, behavior, and org design. If you design or research in any of these areas, please read on.

The intersection of design and emotional labor

Let’s say you create a portal that emphasizes numerical identifiers instead of names. Will people act and treat others less humanely, as a result?

Let’s say you design an experience where employees are an extension of the brand. Will people pretend to be something they’re not in order to do their job?

Finally, what if you train a team to sketch together? Will people who don’t naturally externalize in-the-moment have to work harder in order to be valued?

These are examples of design actions creating emotional labor.

Emotional labor is inducing or suppressing feelings with the intent of fulfilling a role, in order to appear a certain way and/or have a certain impact on others. For example, greeting a customer or “being a team player.”

When people are required to act within a certain role, that’s emotional labor. When people feel obligated or pressured to adopt behaviors that aren’t natural to them, that’s emotional labor, too.

Emotional labor is at the core of what we do

All sorts of people doing their day-to-day jobs end up acting a certain way because of the expectations of their work. In fairly distributed and manageable amounts there is nothing inherently wrong with emotional labor; we expect some amount of it to be part of our daily lives.

The thing about expectations is, we designers embed them into what we design. If the expectations are unspoken, our design work can turn them into harmful norms.

Forms. Websites. Apps. Portals. Platforms. Brands. Businesses. People interact with what we make, and it determines how they act. We quite literally create the conditions that distribute emotional labor.

We aren’t solely responsible, of course! But since we’re the people looking out for people, acknowledging that emotional labor exists is kind of a big deal.

Seriously, emotional labor is at the core of what we do

Like most people, we also do emotional labor. We do a lot of it. We listen deeply to research participants without judgment. We facilitate and harmonize teams and organizations to get our work done. We walk a tightrope between what the business wants and what people want.

And we do it all with patience, compassion, collaboration, and great listening skills — because those are the expectations of our job.

Emotional labor is hard work

I hope that this term, emotional labor, helps us have smarter conversations with ourselves and each other. Our work has substantive and hidden impacts.

We need to take better care of the people for whom we design — and of ourselves, in the process.