Emotional Labor: 4 Tips for Sharing the Mental Load

Have you ever felt, much like Jennifer Aniston’s character in The Breakup, that you didn’t just want your partner to do the dishes; you wanted them to want to do the dishes? If so, you were likely dealing with an imbalance of something called emotional labor.

The concept of emotional labor is essential to a happy, healthy household ecosystem. When we fail to recognize its importance, we open the door to frustration, exhaustion, conflict, and resentment.

What is Emotional Labor?

There is a hidden cost to managing a household that once had no name but now goes by many. For today’s purposes, we’re calling it emotional labor. Others have also called it invisible labor or mental load.

It is worth noting that the phrase “emotional labor” has two meanings. 

You might call the first meaning “workplace emotional labor,” which refers to the emotion-regulation work an employee might need to do on the job—for example, maintaining a positive attitude and showing empathy to a customer, even temporarily suppressing negative emotions like anger.

However, today we’re talking about the definition of emotional labor, more recently popularized by Gemma Hartley in Harper’s Bazaar and her subsequent book, Fed Up.

In this context, emotional labor refers to the myriad unpaid mental tasks and emotional demands of day-to-day family and household management, such as:

  • Cleaning, maintenance, and other essential housework
  • Managing kids’ meals, schedules, transportation, etc
  • Keeping track of important events on the family calendar
  • Paying bills and balancing financial accounts
  • Looking after the family pets

We use the term “emotional labor” to distinguish between the physical effort of doing these things and the emotional burden of taking responsibility for them. The invisible cost of this awareness can be mentally exhausting, sometimes even more than the physical work itself.

Problems With Emotional Labor

The negative effects of unbalanced emotional labor can cause significant psychological distress within a household. When one person bears too much mental load for everyone, they will likely feel emotionally exhausted, overwhelmed, and anxious. As tension builds, these negative feelings can lead to more severe issues like burnout and resentment.

An uneven mental load is particularly unhealthy when it remains invisible. Often, even a person who feels overloaded due to emotional labor may not know how to express the persistent tension they’re feeling. Likewise, someone not used to doing much emotional labor likely won’t have much self-awareness of their avoidance of the work. 

A problem that neither party fully understands or is prepared to address consciously is grounds for interpersonal conflict that can worsen over time.

The value of discussing this concept, no matter which term you prefer, is establishing a language to talk about it in the first place. Having a name, any name, for this stressful issue allows us to start expressing the problems it causes and building emotional intelligence around them.

Conceptualization, Planning, and Execution

One effective way to illustrate emotional labor is with the Conceptualization, Planning, and Execution (CPE) model, which Eve Rodsky coined in her book, Fair Play.

The CPE model breaks the workload of a task down into three components:

Conceptualization: Recognizing or remembering the need to complete a task

Planning: Determining how best to meet that need

Execution: Following through on the plan and completing the task

Typically, where there is an imbalance of emotional labor, one or more parties treat execution alone as the entirety of the task. As a result, conceptualization and planning often go unnoticed as equal components of the work.

Let’s try an example with a standard household responsibility: making dinner.

  1. First, someone recognizes that the family needs dinner tonight, and it is time to figure out what it will be (conceptualization).
  2. Next, someone plans what dinner will be, plus how and when to make or buy it (planning).
  3. Finally, someone must cook, order, or otherwise provide the meal for everyone to eat (execution).

Imagine a night when you work late, leave out ingredients for dinner, and ask a family member to cook that meal at a specific time. What that family member did was undoubtedly helpful but only covered the execution phase; the conceptualization and planning still fell to you.

Sharing the Load: Tips for Balancing Emotional Labor

When we don’t give enough attention to emotional labor, it will often fall mostly or entirely to one person in the family. As we’ve seen, this can lead to a variety of challenges and leave  emotional needs unmet. To start managing emotional labor and sharing the load in a way that suits everyone, try some of the strategies below.

Talk About It

Unfortunately, awareness of emotional labor does not immediately remove the negativity it can cause, but it does give us a language to identify, discuss, and later attack these challenges. 

As with all things family, parenting, and relationships, open and healthy discussions are an essential tool to cope with and prevent emotional conflict.

If you’re new to the idea of emotional labor, there’s a good chance the rest of your family is, too. If that’s the case, it’s okay to start slow and have simple, open-ended conversations about it and how it affects each of you. There’s no need to rush to solutions, accusations, new house rules, or anything like that.

Working together to establish awareness and compassion around this often-invisible toll can positively impact the trust and understanding you have around it.

Divide the C, P, and E

When it comes to building mindfulness and a positive relationship with emotional labor, it may help to break each problem down into components: conceptualization, planning, and execution.

With some everyday jobs and household chores, what feels like an execution problem may be more of a conceptualization problem. For instance, someone who doesn’t wash enough dishes may not be bad at executing the task so much as paying attention to when it needs doing.

On the other hand, some tasks work best when one family member primarily “owns” the responsibility of conceptualization. For example, one person may be the one who “owns” the job of walking the dog. Even if they ask someone else to do it, they are still responsible for ensuring the dog gets outside.

There’s no one-size solution for dividing household C, P, and E, but simply knowing that all three exist and can be separated greatly benefits household emotional wellbeing.

Play to Each Person’s Strengths

In your family conversations about emotional labor, you may discover diverse preferences and strengths.

For example, you may discover that one person hates washing laundry and doesn’t mind folding, and another hates folding but has no problem washing. If that’s the case, you can split the chore in half, so each person gets what they feel is the easier part.

Discrepancies like these are great opportunities to divide household labor in a way that makes it smoother for everyone.

Of course, no one will ever feel much enthusiasm for scrubbing toilets or taking out the trash. Still, try to cater the workload to what naturally clicks best with each person to the extent possible.

One crucial thing to note is that this strategy only works when all parties use it in good faith. It should not become a loophole for excuses like, “It’s easier when you do it because you’re just better at all that stuff.” The goal is to lighten the load for everyone, not to avoid emotional labor.

Allow Room for Discomfort

Rebalancing the workload so everyone has a fair role is essential, but it’s not an immediate shift. It will likely cause some discomfort and growing pains along the way.

When someone starts to take on emotional labor responsibilities that they typically haven’t in the past, it is like they are exercising a new muscle for the first time. Therefore, it is best to be mindful of the expectation that the situation will improve immediately.

For instance, if your partner has recently agreed to take more responsibility for a particular chore you have usually done, they might not do it as well as you do right from the start. That is okay. 

It is essential to make room for discomfort and give everyone sufficient space to grow into their responsibilities, even if they struggle at first. Gentle reminders are always preferable to taking over, interfering, or “just taking care of it this time.” While this may soothe immediate discomfort, it can sabotage the process and further enable an imbalanced mental workload.

Someone who has recently agreed to take on more emotional labor will almost certainly struggle. Give them room to grow through this struggle, and your whole household will be better off.

Sharing the Load Takes Time, Patience, and Communication

Emotional labor is a responsibility everyone has, though as families, we don’t always know how to talk about it and share it appropriately. Starting open, honest conversations with your family about this invisible burden is an essential step in finding a sustainable workflow.

There are many strategies and helpful techniques for working with this issue, but all of them come secondary to upfront communication. Though with time, patience, and continuing conversations, you’ll be able to keep moving in a direction that works best for everyone.

This post originally appeared on Hello Sensible.

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Hey, I’m Sam. I created Smarter and Harder to explore big ideas, both old and new, about building a better life. My mission is to evolve the conversation about personal growth and have fun doing it.

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