The Cost of Emotional Labor in the Workplace and How to Fight It

A working student's take on balance.
June 4, 2019
8 mins read

Whether it be serving patrons at a restaurant or helping customers in a retail setting, college students and young adults have worked jobs that forced them to put a smile on their faces even during the times when they’ve least wanted to. We’ve all been there. Especially while in school, or just juggling personal issues, having to force happiness in the workplace can become more work than the actual job itself. Emotional labor, a term used by communication and human resource professionals alike, is defined as essentially being able to present your emotions in a positive or patient demeanor rather than expressing how you’re actually feeling.

Being in college, or right after it, young adults often work jobs that are in abundance, require little previous experience and therefore offer the fastest route to a paycheck, a non-negotiable for someone in school or just needing the extra cash flow. These jobs, although easily accessible, are some of the most emotionally taxing positions in which one could work.

Although outsiders may consider these jobs “easy,” being able to balance the emotional labor and your personal life is imperative to succeeding both personally and professionally, otherwise it will cost you.

There have been countless studies that talk about the financial and production costs of emotional labor, but the cost of employees is often overlooked. What does the emotional labor of a job actually cost us as humans? Is the job and the added emotional drainage worth sacrificing our happiness and aspirations outside of work?

College students are probably the most susceptible to the cost of emotional labor. At first, the allure of working a job with flexible hours and seemingly easy work with a steady paycheck seems appealing, but even students are guilty of not considering the energy that working a job that requires a smile actually takes.

I’ve been working retail through most of the duration of my undergraduate career, and as I move toward reaching almost three years at my current company as a retail consultant, I realize the challenges of having to put on a friendly face and make genuine conversations, and how this affects my life outside of work.

College students (myself included) are constantly balancing class, studying, planning our futures and managing to pay our bills all while trying to maintain a social life with the shred of time we have left.

Even when I’m at work talking to customers, I’m thinking about how I’d much rather be spending that time finishing an assignment or studying for an exam, stressing about the work that’s waiting for me as soon as I clock out of my shift. That stress is covered by maintaining an upbeat presence that takes much more out of me than I realize, leaving me too tired after work to be productive toward what I need to be doing for school, resulting in procrastination.

Forcing small talk and empty conversation also affects my actual social life. Being able to have the same conversation with multiple customers a day while trying to maintain a façade of pleasantness makes me too tired to do much else. There have been countless times that I’ve given up plans with friends just to go home and decompress alone.

Students aren’t the only ones who fall victim to emotional labor, though. There are many people who, whether or not they went to college, will work these kinds of jobs simply for the paycheck or because they use it as their steady income while pursuing other interests that might not have an immediate payout.

Being able to do this requires extreme dedication and the ability to balance what’s important, by being able to leave from the day job and submerging into the outside interests. Although doing this sounds easy enough, many of my own co-workers and friends struggle with this, causing burnout and stunting the progress of whatever else they’re trying to pursue.

Fortunately, there are ways to combat the effects of emotional labor and to stay motivated both at work and outside of it.

Planning your week ahead of time helps immensely with preventing the loss of anticipated productivity or the need to cancel plans with friends and family. I personally use a physical planner to layout my week, but any type of tool for time organization will help you better prepare for things outside of work. For example, if you have an assignment due Thursday morning but work Wednesday, try to finish the assignment before that Wednesday shift. Making plans with friends? Try to avoid days where you know you’re going to be tired from a long day at work.

In my own experience, being able to voice any concerns or strained emotions from work is also therapeutic, especially when discussed with a co-worker or manager. Always maintain professionalism but seek guidance on what others have done to not feel emotionally drained after a day at work. Often times, your colleagues will have the same feelings you’re having and sharing them will create an environment of trust and understanding at the workplace.

What I’ve found is most important, though, is understanding my own worth and value. I’ve had to acknowledge that the emotional effort that I put in day-in and day-out at my job doesn’t have to change anything else in my life. If I’m able to separate myself from my feelings towards work until I’m actually at work, I find I’m a much more productive and social person, rather than blame everything on my job.

For most young adults, the steady income is a necessary part of our lives, but we have to step back and evaluate the actual cost that the emotional labor puts on us. Whether the cost is affecting our personal relationships, school work or other career goals, finding ways to not let emotional-labor define you is what will ultimately help you move past it.

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