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How to rebalance emotional labour in the workplace

Jess Hardy 08 March 2022

A small and brown teddy bear

An exodus of women from the workforce throughout the pandemic has been repeatedly attributed to unbalanced care responsibilities at home. But as we start to rebuild our workplaces for the better, is bias around care at work also holding us back? This International Women’s Day, Jessica Hardy discusses how workplaces can #BreakTheBias.


The approach of International Women’s Day brings reminders of a whole host of injustices that are enlightening and frustrating. Some of which I feel helpless to influence, but gender bias in the workplace – this one's for me. Perhaps it’s my role as an Employee Experience Consultant, or perhaps because as an employee, I have seen it so clearly throughout my career. For me, the breaking of gender bias is an obvious and transformational thing to tackle, and nowhere is the bias more obvious than the role of the carer.


While there are always exceptions, research shows that women in senior positions have a disproportionate impact on wellbeing in the workplace. Due to gender norms, women are not only taking on more of the care work at home* but also taking on more care in the workplace.


‘Emotional labour’ has long been a talking point, but it has been amplified by the stress and upheaval of the last two years. Women are increasingly helping their colleagues navigate work-life challenges, manage workloads, and stepping in to provide support.


To employees and businesses alike - these things matter. Not only because it feels good to receive guidance and empathy in a moment of need, but because a supportive environment is proven to make people happier in their jobs, and both foster good will and productivity. It also makes people less inclined to move on. But at what cost?


Since the start of the 9-5 and throughout the pandemic, women have stepped up into crucial roles which often go unrecognised and unrewarded, despite taking on significantly extra work. And the burnout is real, with one in three women considering stepping back from their current role to save their mental health and redress a sense of balance.


For many women (and some men), balancing care at home and work, is, to use the most frequented phrase of the last two years - a lot. So how can we build inclusive environments, that keep the women we desperately need in the workforce and start to upskill all managers to fulfil the caring roles needed for modern organisations?


1. Recognise and replicate the additional care work people already do


Build colleague wellbeing into performance reviews and quantify how managers support their teams. Reward the leaders making an outsized impact on your people and organisation with recognition and remuneration for their additional effort. By formally recognising this critical work we can set expectations that care, and inclusivity is everyone’s responsibility, not just those who lean into the role.


With the intrinsic link between wellbeing and inclusion (and as there can’t be a business not talking about both right now), this is a potentially transformational step in making day-to-day inclusion a reality.


2. Prioritise emotional intelligence as a skill for managers 


Due to proximity, line managers are often best positioned to spot burnout, ensure day-to-day inclusivity, and gauge morale within teams. But presuming everyone is equipped with the interpersonal skills to do so is a common mistake – and recent McKinsey research suggests employees with female managers are more likely to feel supported.


It's true that our male counterparts may have further to go to learn more compassionate behaviour. Society conditions women and girls toward nurturing traits, and these soft skills have not traditionally been an expected part of the male toolkit - but breaking the bias must start somewhere. Alongside more formal training (LinkedIn Learning has a great starter session), leading with empathy from the top sets the tone for ‘how we do things around here’. Talking openly about managing childcare, the additional pressures of fluctuating teams, workloads, and mental health help to normalise these common challenges and sets expectations around care.


3. Set company norms around ways of working


The need for flexi hours, time off to attend appointments, mental health days… all great ideas but often executed at a team level and championed by some managers more than others. Notoriously, if unfairly, women are perceived to understand this stuff more than men (proven to be learned gender behaviour, over a biological propensity to caring more). You can help take the variable nature of line management out of the equation by setting companywide policies for a more consistent employee experience.


The most effective and reliable way I’ve seen is by removing the term ‘with your line manager's permission’ from policies; thereby levelling the playing field for employees, regardless of their manager’s propensity to grant it. Coupled with role modelling from the top, a less female-biased approach to wellbeing might just be possible.


While to many this may well seem like common sense, our upbringing and age brackets (Gen X now largely running corporates and countries), mean that traditional gender norms can be entrenched. Along with a whole host of other practices to unlearn, our reliance on women to do the lion’s share of care, both at home and in the workplace is one of them.


Female leaders shone throughout the pandemic (hello Jacinda Arden), demonstrating that empathy and strength are far from exclusive. But rather than relying on women to fill the support void, let’s break the bias and get real about the necessity of emotional labour to our people and businesses, and raise our expectations across the board.


*women are 10 x more likely to take time off to care for a sick child, and on average take on 3 x the housework of their male partners.