“Women hold up half the sky,” – Mao Tse-Tung.

Who manages the emotional labour in your household? Who plans the daily meals or coordinates the school run? Who organises your social life, creates the travel plans or makes the in-laws welcome when they come for Sunday lunch? Who picks up the pieces of a bad mood?

When it comes to mental health and wellbeing, women have a reputation for putting the needs of others above their own. We also know that women experience worry, anxiety and depression at a higher rate than their male counterparts.

This month, Women’s Health Week (2-6th September 2019) provided a timely reminder for Australian women to reflect on their own mental health and wellbeing, to create an opportunity to learn how to be more self-compassionate and initiate their own self-care plan. 

Women’s mental health has been shown to be adversely affected by gender roles and gender-based responsibilities. Women face many challenges in everyday life regarding their roles within their family, workplace, and friends. Such social expectations may contribute to a woman feeling unexpected pressure, which may negatively influence her emotional and mental health. The concept of emotional work or labour has garnered recent interest within the general public in the last decade.

What is Emotional Labour? 

Emotional labour is the use of energy for the purpose of managing other people’s feelings, living up to social expectations, or making other individuals comfortable. In other terms, it is the management of feelings (your own or someone else’s) to accomplish some goal, like keeping a relationship or household functioning or leaving a customer satisfied. It’s called “emotional labour” as it typically uses up – and often drains – our emotional resources. 

Arlie Hochschild is a sociologist who first coined this phrase in her 1983 book, “The Managed Heart”. She used this phrase to define the work of people who work in customer service, who have to consciously manage their own emotions and try to shape the feelings of others to complete their jobs. 

Hochschild felt that women and low-income employees were being subtly asked to manage other individual’s emotions without being compensated for that difficult aspect of their labour. Hochschild was concerned about the potential health and social side effects of asking people to manage other people’s emotional load everyday. Since 1983 there has been a move away from using this phrase to understand employees, to using it describe the unrecognised work in managing and organising a family, relationship, household, or team- especially when performed by women.

What can women do?

Engaging in self-care is a must. The burden of emotional labour feels twice as heavy when you’re hungry, tired or stressed. So make sure the basics are taken care of first. 

In addition to good sleep, exercise and nutrition, you can re-energise by doing enjoyable or fun activities (e.g., coffee date with a friend, exercise, meditate, listen to music, walk in nature), taking a break from the usual routine, and sharing the emotional labour burden. 

Try chatting with your partner, family or friends to identify the form emotional labour takes in your life and how you share it better, so it doesn’t all rest on your shoulders. Working with a therapist can also help you create a tailored wellbeing plan and give you the skills to put the plan into action. 

Further reading to help you drop the emotional load:

What’s Your Wellbeing Plan?

The Vital Missing Ingredient in Your Self Care Plan

Reclaim Rejuvenation

The enormous benefits a little Self-Compassion can bring.

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