How we feel matters: Dealing with emotional labour

May 21, 2020

We all act in ways that don’t betray the way we really feel, but is it good for us?

Claire Henry and Marie Cooper share the meaning behind what we are doing and why we need to be aware of our emotional labour.


Behaving as a happy, positive and strong leader has a cost if that is not how you really feel. We use the phrase ‘fake it until you make it’ as a way of pushing ourselves through certain challenges, making it seem like we are fine when we feel anything but.

Doing this for a limited time can indeed build skills and confidence and get the job done, but it is a whole new game when we feel ‘this is hard’ day in and day out.


What is emotional labour?

The need to show you care can be relentless and exhausting sometimes. Staff, the people you support, and family members require you to be ever empathic, patient and engaged.

Whilst you are keenly aware of your responsibility, and indeed desire, to ‘show up’ in your leadership role, it is so important to be honest with yourself first and foremost and to observe for any emotional dissonance you feel and how it impacts you.

This experience of needing to behave in a certain way when your feelings run counter to that is a phenomenon which has been well researched and is now identified by the term ‘emotional labour’ or ‘emotional burden’.

Put simply, this is when you suppress your own emotions in order to fulfil the expectations within your job or in a particular situation. The term was first used in 1983, when American sociologist, Arlie Hochschild wrote about it in her book, The Managed Heart. In this, she looked at the service industry and it certainly applies to those working in the care sector.

We will all at times deploy what she coined as ‘surface acting’, as we need to hide our inner reactions and feelings and act in a way we know is expected in a given situation.

But knowing how to manage such inner feelings in a healthy way requires emotional intelligence – the ability to control our emotions and to be able to do this with real insight so we respond to the situation in hand in a healthy and appropriate way.

Emotional intelligence is used during times of emotional labour, and without one the other cannot be there. They are two sides of the same coin.

It is therefore an important aspect of self-care to be aware of, and it’s important to support your team to recognise it in themselves too. Working with unaddressed emotional labour is exhausting and leads to real dissatisfaction and potentially poor care.


Building emotional intelligence

Maria Conceicao Serra defines emotional intelligence as the ability to recognise your own and other people’s emotions and respond appropriately. She speaks about the four pillars of emotional intelligence, which are:

  1. Self-awareness: including emotional self-awareness, which is the ability to know yourself and understand your feelings, to understand your strengths and weaknesses and their effects and have a healthy self-confidence with faith in your self.
  2. Self-management: including emotional self-control. This is an important part of emotional maturity; controlling your feelings and/or expressing them in the appropriate settings is a key skill.
  3. Social awareness: this is the empathy to form connections with others, and understanding and acknowledging others’ emotions through listening. It includes the ability to explain yourself well and be aware of how you are being understood.
  4. Relationship management: this requires, for example, being a good mentor, role model, and authority figure, clear ways of effectively motivating others, having the skills to improve relationships, negotiate, and lead.

Reflecting on the four pillars can offer some helpful guidance for all of us as we respond to any situation, role or relationship, be it at home or at work.

These pillars can also be a useful aid to include in clinical supervision, coaching or mentoring sessions. By investing time in attending to your own emotions, you are showing your team that personal emotions do matter and do have an impact on the individual, the wider team or the care they deliver. Ultimately, emotional wellbeing does matter.

Questions to consider

  • How do I cope with my emotions?
  • What do I need to do to support my staff?
  • Where can I get help?


Useful help and resources

Skills for Care:

Care Management Matters:

Mental Health Foundation:


With thanks to:
Marie Cooper and Claire Henry MBE, Claire Henry Associates

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