Easing the emotional labor of disabled people

What Is Emotional Labor?

Recently, the term “emotional labor” has become a frequent element in conversations about social justice. Emotional labor can be defined as managing another person’s emotions and expectations, and often speaks to gender norms and stereotypes. Emotional labor is a part of friendships, working relationships, family, and romantic partnerships. Whether it is an employee in customer service trying to maintain a pleasant demeanor with a disgruntled customer, a parent remaining calm during a toddler’s tantrum, or an employee navigating the emotions of their manager – emotional labor is something that affects all of us in some way. While emotional labor is a natural part of life, it’s important to pay close attention to the distribution of emotional labor – in our communities, in our work culture, and in our lives as a whole. It’s necessary to do this because the amount of emotional labor we have to perform directly affects our mental health.

There are many ways to define both this buzzword and how our world interacts with emotional labor. For our purposes we’re going to divide it into two categories – paid and unpaid – and look into how to keep these areas as healthy as possible.

In some situations, paid emotional labor is a job – such as a therapist, a social worker, or an HR specialist. Paid emotional labor could also be DEIB workers, who have crafted their lived experiences into training and education to teach others. In these instances, paid emotional labor is something the person performing the labor signed up for, is compensated for, and is within the scope of their job. These individuals have willingly taken on additional emotional labor as a career, and it is their responsibility to manage their self-care and emotional capacity as a part of their work. Other forms of paid emotional labor include servers or customer service individuals who are expected to perform while on the job. Although technically they are being paid for their time, it’s usually at low wages and without the space to advocate for themselves. At “best” this results in frustrated and burnt-out employees; at worst it leads to exploitation or harassment of workers who are not able to self-advocate without risking their employment and financial security.

Unpaid emotional labor takes on a world of its own. Examples of unpaid emotional labor are parents balancing the work of childcare, housekeeping, and logistics for a family. If that labor is split between parents or a community in a way that helps protect the mental health and respect the time of everyone involved, then it is a great example of healthy emotional labor. However, if all of the logistics and responsibilities fall onto one parent while the other parent doesn’t help and it negatively impacts the parent who is performing the emotional labor, then the balance is unhealthy and needs to be revisited. When emotional labor isn’t balanced, it is detrimental to the mental health of the person bearing the heaviest load.

When it comes to families impacted by disability, there is often a lot more emotional labor involved due to the mental energy expended balancing necessary additional appointments, caregivers, logistics, and costs associated with the care of disabled family members all at once. These additional emotional labor tasks are intensified by systemic ableism – like the Medicaid system and disability world being difficult to navigate, expensive or inaccessible healthcare, or transportation and buildings not being easily accessible.

​​Since the term originated in 1983, “emotional labor” has evolved to more generally encompass work that goes unpaid and unrecognized, and in the social justice world, it refers to the extra invisible work that marginalized people have to deal with while living within systems that oppress them. BIPOC or AAPI individuals have to endure emotional labor educating on racism, LGBTQ+ communities have to bear emotional labor while educating about issues correlating with homophobia and transphobia, and disabled people need to educate non-disabled people about ableism.

Within the disability community, this could look like dealing with microaggressions, educating people who refuse to stop using terms such as “special needs.” or having to advocate for reasonable accommodations for themselves within the workplace.

Being an ally to the disabled community means being an ally to disabled people and their caregivers. Here are ways that we can ease the emotional labor of both parties:

1. Practice active listening.

Disabled people have been educating and advocating for how they want to be included, spoken about, and treated for a very long time. Nobody knows the weight of the emotional labor that disabled people deal with better than disabled people themselves. The things that disabled people advocate for will also help caregivers of people with disabilities. When disabled people advocate for changes – listen and respond right away, decreasing the amount of emotional labor they have to perform due to not needing to continuously self-advocate.

2. Don’t take correction personally.

When a disabled person tells you that a remark, policy, or opinion is ableist – take it as an opportunity to learn and grow. Practice being nonreactive and learn about ableism. Take their feedback as a gift to help improve yourself, and in turn, make the world a better place for disabled people to live. When you hear others sharing similar sentiments, share your experience about being corrected.

3. Practice proactivity.

Often, when disabled people speak about preferred language, stigmas, or other representation in media, they are bombarded with questions that are both defensive and easy to self-research. “Why can’t I say special needs?! Their needs ARE special!” “We have the ADA, isn’t that enough?” “Disabled people just live off the government, that’s what SSI is, right?” Society doesn’t talk about disability, so it is normal and healthy to have questions. There are great resources available to people curious about why disabled people advocate for certain things that can usually be found with a simple search. Instead of demanding answers from a disabled person you might know, check to see if there are resources that explain the things you are wanting questions about. Make sure these resources are led by disabled activists themselves. 

Another great way to practice proactivity is to put policies or programs into place that help disabled people or families affected by disability meet their needs. The emotional labor of caregiving – whether for oneself or a family member affected by disability – is heavy and helping individuals navigate that with less stress and more ease needs to be at the top of the priority list. 

Joshin is here to help you begin your proactive journey. We provide training on topics involving disability care, disability best practices, ableism, and disability DEIB in the workplace. We also provide care benefits for families and individuals affected by disability to help carry the emotional labor as a team. If you would like help with the next steps, email partnerships@joshin.com.

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