Emotional labor, office housework, whatever — mission driven does not mean martyr

This article was written by featured writer Janice Chan

A mentor once gave me an earful because I’d offered to put in a business card order for everyone in the office after our boss asked me to put in their order. “You are not the administrative assistant, nor should you be,” she said to me emphatically. I am grateful she did, because it never occurred to me, as a 21-year-old entry-level female employee, that it was the kind of offer that would set a precedent — that I needed to think about before offering. It would have been handled by the administrative assistant except the position was vacant.

I’d like to unpack this a bit because admittedly it was not something I fully understood in the moment.

Anyone who has worked with me knows I am all about team players — being one and working with them. However, there is a distinct difference between asking people to pitch in when needed because of a temporary situation and refusing to appropriately staff your organization and/or provide resources (e.g. through a freelance contract) because you’ve been able to get away with it as nobody has questioned you about overtime or about how their job has turned into a bait and switch.

Let me state now that I am excluding people who assume interim leadership roles and eventually get to remove “interim” or return to their previous roles once someone new is hired. Nor am I talking about employees who ask to take on new responsibilities in order to grow or make their jobs more fulfilling.

I’m talking about the responsibilities that are temporarily taken on in the spirit of being a team player and that turn into a permanent part of one’s job. I’m talking about things like troubleshooting the website because you’re the youngest person in the office. I’m talking about spending half a day fixing printer jams because the printer is next to your cubicle and you can’t stand the beeping noise. Or being expected to fetch coffee when none of your peers are.

Are you nodding your head yet?

It’s being asked to speak with the intern about dressing appropriately for the office — not because you’re their manager but because you’re the same gender. Looking after wellness in the workplace because you’re a chaplain or social worker. Leading diversity and inclusion initiatives because you’re the person of color. Making sure the room is set up before meetings and cleaned up afterwards because you’re the responsible, detail-oriented person. Managing projects because you’re the only one who is going to take on the unrecognized work of actually bringing parts and people together into a finished, cohesive product. Getting birthday cards and circulating them because you’re the den mother of the office.

Except that this isn’t the Cub Scouts, it’s a workplace.

Call it emotional labor — or not. Call it office housework. Call it — maybe there is not one tidy phrase that can encompass what happens between when someone steps up assuming it is temporary or that it will be recognized or that they cannot say no, and when they realize that everyone else, well, either assumes it’s okay because it was voluntary or…completely forgets about it.

The issue at hand here is not the type of tasks. The issue here is that these responsibilities were never included in anyone’s jobs, and so some people are going to get defaulted into these roles when it’s not what they signed up for. The issue here is that this work is still work and that it often goes unrecognized and gets taken for granted. The issue here is when it is not an equal or rotating ask of everyone to be a team player, but a burden that falls to the same few.

The issue here is that the same few tend to be the people who have the least power and privilege within an organization.

Nonprofit organizations committed to fighting oppression should take care to make sure we’re not doing the same internally because it is the path of least resistance, or because our people are willing. Humans have an amazing capacity to go above and beyond, when we are committed to a cause or a mission. This is also how people get burned out, why people stop stepping up, and how the social sector loses good people. New approaches are needed.

I’m not saying that you must list out every single task someone might possibly be asked to do in a job description. I’m not saying things don’t come up.

But if it is important and it is ongoing, or if it turns out to be more than temporary, then it should be formally part of someone’s job or part of the expectations for all employees.

If you want to have an organizational culture where staff’s milestones and occasions are celebrated, build it in. I’m all for people being in the right seats on the bus, but one person’s attention to birthdays should be their personal addition to a team, not a substitute for organizational practice.

If you want to have a clean conference rooms or records of decisions made at meetings, then the checklist for meetings should include clean-up and note taking. Unless these tasks are a part of someone’s job responsibilities, create a process to rotate or equally distribute these tasks.

And for crying out loud: If your teams are completing projects successfully, somebody is doing the project management and they are not getting recognized, paid, or supported for it.

If it is a part of doing business for your organization, then it should be a part of doing business and should be planned and resourced for accordingly. This is what healthy, professional organizations do.

People step up trusting that their stepping up has value, whether it is in advancing the mission, supporting their teammates, growing their capacity to take on new challenges, or simply because it is the right thing to do in that moment. We owe it to them to earn that trust, and to keep earning it.

Thanks for reading! Check out & follow our other awesome content on The Nonprofit Revolution!