In every workplace, someone does the emotional labor that accompanies people working together. They are the ones who think through and care about the details of coworkers’ lives. You may see their labor in the form of cards, hugs or quiet conversations, but emotional labor can take many forms. There’s a lot to emotional labor and its gendered patterns.
My workplace is big, and there are many people who step up and do this unpaid work across the company. But in my department (which currently includes about 75 people), one woman does the bulk of the emotional labor for the entire group. I recently polled just over 20 percent of the department (across age/gender/tenure) asking, who in our department they thought does the emotional labor? One woman was unanimously identified as the primary emotional laborer.
I’ll call her Billie. Billie has a special place in my heart because she trained me to do my job years ago. She trained me well in a job that many fail to succeed in, a job that requires discipline, a job that’s “so simple, it’s hard,” as she explained it to me back then. I owe a lot to her for that, but that’s just some of the work that Billie does in an official capacity. On top of her full-time job, she does this emotional labor year in and year out—for nearly 20 years now.
This year, I decided to see what I could put together in honor of her birthday and in gratitude for her emotional labor in our work community. I’ve watched for years as Billie organized thoughtful efforts for a great many coworkers. I always wanted to help, but I didn’t really know how. I’ve thanked Billie. I’ve chipped in a few dollars once or twice to offset the cost of the endless stream of cards she buys and circulates. I’ve even helped gather signatures a couple of times. But for the most part Billie does all this without much dependable support (on top of her professional demands, family responsibilities, and personal goings on). Based on the poll, I’m not the only one to notice her efforts. And maybe that’s why the process of putting something together for her birthday was so painless. Everyone was willing to do a little bit of emotional labor for Billie. It illustrates that when a community shares the emotional labor, doing it becomes easy and joyful.
I did the poll and started mentioning her birthday about a month beforehand, and the outpouring of love and appreciation for Billie was extraordinary. Immediately, several people had ideas for what to get her, and they were willing to do the legwork to make it happen. Many people helped gather signatures on the birthday card we got her. Others hatched plans to get flowers and gift cards. A few volunteered to bring a treat in to work on the big day. And many, many people shared stories of how Billie had helped them at critical points. One coworker recalled that when a family member passed away and he got a card, he saw it as a rite of passage in the department saying, “I got my Billie card!”
Our one-time effort to recognize the emotional labor that Billie does cannot come close to evening out the workload, but it can get us all thinking about it. Who does the emotional labor in our lives at work, at home, and in all settings?
What’s clear is that Billie is beloved. The community she’s cultivated over two decades of work has grown into a garden of appreciation heavy with the fruits of her emotional labor.