Why we need to delegate emotional labor

27 déc. 2023


Why we need to delegate emotional labor
Rozena Crossman

Journalist and translator based in Paris, France.

In the eve of 2024, a stubborn gender wage gap continues to cast a shadow over the strides American women have made in the workplace. For 20 years, the difference in earnings between men and women have remained largely unchanged. Economists have ramped up their efforts to figure out why, and are finding that a major stumbling block is a wonky distribution of labor both at work and in the home.

So organizational experts have helped take the lead. Not just because household chores eat into the time women could be working, but also because the principles of running a household and managing company aren’t all that different.

One such expert is Regina Lark, author of Emotional Labor: Why A Woman’s Work is Never Done and What To Do About It. Founder of the professional organizing and productivity agency A Clear Path, Lark is frequently solicited to speak and write about women in the workplace, emotional labor, time management, hoarding, and ADHD. She tells Welcome To The Jungle about how to identify unpaid labor, why women are doing most of it, and how to break these persistent cycles.

Can you tell me a bit about your professional background? What led you to become an organization and productivity specialist?

I finished a Ph.D. in women’s history from the University of Southern California and then I spent a total of about 25 years as an adjunct professor of history and women’s studies at the community college level. I also worked at UCLA for seven years as an academic administrator, not as faculty, directing the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Languages program at UCLA Extension. It could have been a very good job for me, but personally and professionally, it just wasn’t a good fit. And honestly, I was very tied to the salary.

In June of 2008, I went to Jerusalem to visit a very good friend of mine. One day I said, “I don’t want to be a tourist today — so how about I organize your kitchen?” And my friend was like, “Habibi, what do you mean?” And I said, “Your daughters are in their thirties, and you still have sippy cups in the cupboard. Just let me do what I’m good at.” I’d always been good at organizing, so I organized her kitchen — and the result was great. Then I got back to my desk at UCLA and I learned that my unit was being dismantled, my position eliminated and, two weeks later, I didn’t have a job. The goddess of jobs had done for me what I could not do for myself. So I told my roommate, “I’m going to organize for money until something better comes along.”

Within a couple of weeks, I was up and running. I opened A Clear Path, and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I’d been in academia for 23 years — I was all about the pursuit of the degrees. When I started organizing, a couple of things happened that first year that were my aha moments.

Firstly, I was being invited to the homes of people who had a lot of clutter. One woman brought in a whole bunch of stuff from when her mom died and within a few minutes of meeting, she held up a very benign object and asked, “Is it okay if I let this go?” And I looked at it, and it was an embroidered eyeglass case holder. And I thought, “She’s asking me permission. She just met me. This was her mom’s.” And I said, “Sure, let it go.” But I was very curious about needing permission.

So I enrolled and did a ton of coursework with an organization called the Institute for Challenging Disorganization, where mental health professionals meet professional organizers. I did a lot of training to understand how the brain processes clutter, and our relationship with time, and with our emotions. And here was my key takeaway: in order for us to keep things neat and tidy at home, we need to use a part of our brain called the executive functions. It allows us to plan, prioritize, process. Within the executive functions, we are being productive. We have a good relationship with time. One of the things I hear a lot in clutter-land is, “I have no time. I always run out of time. I’m never on time” And as a result, they have a lot of clutter because they don’t have a strong skill set with time. Now, everyone’s executive functioning skills can go south for a little while is when we’re involved in major life transitions: marriage, death, birth, divorce, cancer, COVID – even those of us who have strong executive functioning skills could get knocked offline for a time while we’re in these major transitions. But somebody like me, with strong executive functioning skills, if I get thrown for a loop, I’m back on track pretty quickly. But folks with ADHD, depression or anxiety — all of those impact the part of the brain where the executive functions live. So it’s harder for them to catch up.

What’s more, I started realizing that it was nearly always women calling me to declutter their homes. And I’m listening to how they feel about themselves when it comes to their cluttered spaces. Shame, anxiety, frustration, overwhelm, depression. They’re just feeling the weight of household management on their shoulders. One day, I’m talking to a client and she’s just in tears because the volume of clutter around her was so great. And she has a husband, and two teenage kids. And we sat there and I said, “Why do you think this is all your responsibility?” And she goes, “Well, this is women’s work.”

And I’m like, “Actually, no. It’s work. There’s no gender attached to this work.” I remember reciting Women’s History 101 to her, and talking about why we have this historical myth that women are better at household work. I said, “Sylvia, just because you have a vagina doesn’t mean you were born to do this.” And I just saw the sense of relief wash over her face.

We talked about how to get her family to recognize the work she was doing, and to partner with her in that work. More and more I started realizing how it tends to be the women of the household that are shouldering the burden of this work. And more often than not, these women are overwhelmed by the clutter because it’s a reaction to their weak executive functioning skills. Yet these women feel like they’re failing themselves miserably time and time again. And that, to me, is unacceptable because it’s just freaking work. It does not have a gender. In fact, aside from pushing a baby out and breastfeeding, the role of homemaker is up for grabs.

You often talk about invisible work and emotional labor as a big part of the extra responsibilities given to women. Can you talk a bit about these concepts, and how they play out in the workplace?

The term “emotional labor” was first coined by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her 1980s book The Managed Heart. She interviewed food servers and flight attendants, and it’s this idea of going outside of your job description to make your clients and customers feel comforted and satisfied and happy to be in the same space with you. It’s thinking about how you make that happen. Today, we talk about the emotional parts of living in a household with, or working with, other people.

Emotional labor is seen in the paid workforce when a co-worker’s dad dies, and you’re the one who says, “We should send around a condolence card.” Because it’s the lovely and right thing to do. There’s nothing wrong with the work of emotional labor. Where a lot of women get caught up is that they seem to be the only ones thinking about all of these things. So not only do we call the physical part of household management “women’s work” — laundry, groceries, vacuuming, all of that is very visible, tangible — but we’ve decided it’s also women’s work to carry the invisible part, the mental load.

Have you ever looked up the statistic that if every full time homemaker walked off the job, what it would take to replace that job?

They did that in Iceland in the seventies, I think.

Icelandic women just walked off the job again two weeks ago. Even the prime minister told her cabinet, “Don’t come in.” [Oxfam estimates that if global unpaid care work were paid minimum wage, it would contribute $108 trillion to the economy per year — three times the amount of the international tech industry].

Both emotional labor and the work of doing a million little chores seem hard to track. How do you help both couples and companies recognize who is doing all this extra work?

I’ll start with the home. Here’s the thing: if I’m trying to help a couple recognize the depth and breadth of emotional labor, chances are very good they’ve been having arguments about this already. Again, I’m a professional organizer — I’m not a clinician, I’m not a therapist, I’m not a coach. But what I would love to see happen, when couples talk about their household work issues with mental health providers and relationship coaches, is to put both adults in separate rooms and have them write down everything they believe they do for the home. Bar none. Just write it down without judgment, without criticism, without pointing fingers. If you’re the one who wipes the top of the fan blades every year, write it down. If you’re making appointments, write it down. And then simply compare lists. Chances are very good one list is going to be a hell of a lot longer than the other list. So then talk about the chores. Talk about what has to happen. How do we partner on this? What are we going to offload? How do we engage in the art and practice of radical delegation?

Same goes for companies: write it down. If you have a workforce where you’re hearing rumblings about somebody feeling like they’re doing too much, HR or the company owner needs to have their ear to the ground on those grumblings. When you have an employee that would work much better in a hybrid situation, find out what that’s about. Are they the primary caretaker of everything going on in the home? Did their work get done during COVID? I mean, there’s so many conversations that have to happen involving transparency and honesty on both the side of the employer and the employee. Sometimes the employee is silent — they’re sucking it up and just doing what they see has now been expected of them outside their job description. They need to speak up, and the employer has to be willing to hear them — and be willing to take action.

What do you mean by “radical delegation?”

I’m going to start with, “What is delegation?” Delegation is giving a task to someone who’s best suited to the job. “Radical delegation” is delegating a task to somebody who can do the job regardless if they’re best suited to it or not. It just has to get freaking done. The term was coined by Judith Kolberg, with whom I collaborated on my book on emotional labor,

I think the hardest part of radical delegation is for the person who’s been doing the work all along to let go of how they think the work ought to be done. We have to be able to get to “enough” versus “perfect.” There is not just one way to load a dishwasher. Chances are really good that no one’s going to die if there’s a speck of food on the plate that didn’t get washed off. So we have to become okay with “good enough” if we want to truly begin to unload the unfair work burden.

Most of the work of the household ends up going to women, and they’re probably better at it because they’re raised to notice invisible work. They’re side by side with their moms, watching them book a doctor’s appointment and calculating, “What time is school getting out? What is my work schedule like?” All the things you have to think about before you actually pick up the phone to make an appointment. These girls are raised to think about what’s coming up next, and get that work done. So by the time they partner with someone else, yeah, they’re better at it. And that’s hardly fair or equitable.

You frequently talk about the “emotional labor lifecycle” in your work. Can you explain what that is?

So, Judith Kolberg and I came up with this long list of the things you’re going to encounter throughout the life cycle of a family. Starting out with dating: Who’s responsible for birth control? Then, who’s responsible for wedding planning? Who’s responsible for how the holidays are going to be celebrated? Who’s responsible for caregiving once a baby is born and the mom returns to the paid workforce? Who’s responsible for making sure there’s caregiving and nannies and signing up for school? When a couple is in their late forties and fifties and their parents begin to show signs of aging, who’s going to oversee their care? Is each person just dealing with their own parents, or are they sharing the responsibilities?

The goal is to look at all of these things coming up throughout your lifecycle and then preemptively delegate who’s going to do what. Most people react to life instead of respond to life. If you’re in a home where the wife is automatically picking up the last-minute pieces, then you need to radically delegate ahead of time to disrupt that pattern. The summer is going to come no matter what, and school will be out. Instead of mom realizing in May that someone needs to sign the kids up for camp quick, plan ahead and delegate who will be enrolling the children in camp, and that they should do it in March.

Much of this advice is geared towards helping women, but I was recently talking to a gay couple who is having these exact arguments with his husband. One husband is frustrated because he feels like he does everything around the house, while the other feels he contributes as much as he can given his very demanding job and weaker skillset with household matters. Do you think part of the problem is that the person with stronger executive functioning has to take care of the person with weaker executive functioning?

I think there’s the belief the person with more executive functioning has to take care of the other person. And what I think happens in a lot of households is that the person with the stronger executive functioning skills naturally takes things over. But there comes a point where they say, “Hey, wait a minute, why am I doing all of this?” And instead of starting out with conversations about where we’re weaker or stronger, they should try practicing radical delegation. It’s more equitable for everyone.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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