Managing the emotional labor of leadership

Photo of exhausted woman with her forehead resting on the edge of her laptopThere’s a reason you end the day tired, worn out, and even exhausted.

Management and leadership are hard work.

The mental and emotional work of keeping track of your team’s progress, understanding what’s going on for each team member individually, being aware of what they need from you in the moment, interpreting your boss’s priorities (and moods!) …

It’s a lot.

Add on the pandemic, creating layers of anxiety and stress as people struggle to keep themselves and their families safe while also trying to decipher this whole work-from-home thing, and it’s a really lot.

Emotional labor often goes unrecognized. Or – worse – the resulting exhaustion is sneered at as wimpy or as “just” a women’s thing, a feminist complaint.

While it’s true that women generally shoulder significant emotional labor that men don’t, emotional labor is not, by any means, something only women deal with. In fact, management and leadership require a great deal of emotional labor, as this article from the Harvard Business Review website points out.

So how do you manage it? How can you keep yourself from being depleted and exhausted by the end of the day, and drained by the end of the week?

Acknowledge the reality

It’s easy to think that something is wrong with you because you’re worn out and end up collapsing on the weekend. After all – you might think – you didn’t really do anything that difficult. There was no overtime. You didn’t exert yourself physically in any unusual way. It’s not like you’re a construction worker, hauling heavy stuff and scaling roofs all day.

Stop right there.

You did do mental and emotional labor, and the brain does demand food and rest, just as your muscles do.

Emotional labor is real, and it takes a toll. You wouldn’t question being tired after a hard day working in the garden or painting your dining room. Don’t question why you’re tired after a hard day of emotional labor.

It doesn’t mean you’re a wimp. It means you’re a human doing hard work.

Talk about it

Once you’ve acknowledged the reality, it’s time to help others understand as well.

Just like you, your team is going through a lot right now. Trying to work from home when you’re not used to it, especially when the entire family is also stuck at home and everyone’s stress levels are high (which means everyone is doing more emotional labor than usual) – it’s hard.

Talk about it with your team. Acknowledge it for them as well as for yourself.

And talk about it with your family, too, and encourage your team to talk with theirs. Everyone – even young kids – is experiencing extraordinary stress, uncertainty, and confusion right now. Unusual circumstances and disrupted routines all take (wait for it…) extra levels of emotional labor. Bring the subject into the open and normalize it for everyone.

Manage it!

You need time to recover from emotional labor, just as you would from physical labor.

And everyone’s preference for recovery is different.

Some people may need quiet time with what one client calls a “fluffy” book – something mindless but amusing.

Others may want to play an intense round or two of Scrabble.

Or take a hike out in the fresh air.

Play with the dog.

Dive into a hobby.

And so on. There’s no “wrong” way to recover, and every person gets to decide what’s best for them.

Just don’t choose something (such as binging on news or social media) that actually adds to your emotional-labor burden.

And take care that your recovery preference doesn’t require emotional labor from someone else … who may not have it to give.

Micro-breaks help

You generally can’t sit down to read a novel or head out for a hike in the middle of the workday.

But you can take micro-breaks.

Make a list of small things you can do to give your brain a break. You’ll be amazed at how refreshing a five-minute pause can be, whether it’s a short session of chair yoga, a moment outside to feel the air on your face, or  a few minutes to love up your dog or cat (or goldfish, or bird, or whatever) – one of the perks of working from home!

With a list at hand, you won’t have to waste time thinking up what to do when you have a few moments available. (And – ahem – having to come up with an idea is emotional labor!)  Got five minutes before your next meeting? Pull out your list, pick something, and there you are: a little ease just arrived in your day.

Finished with a task and ready to switch to the next thing on your to-do list? Stop! Take out that list, find a five- or ten-minute idea, and give yourself that break.

Energy management is important

Emotional labor is a fact of life, just like physical labor.

And just like physical labor, pushing too hard on the emotional labor leads to injury.

Tired is okay. Tired means you exerted yourself in some way, and it can feel good to be pleasantly tired at the end of the day.

Exhausted and resentful is something else again.

Exhausted and resentful at the end of every day and every week are clear signs that you’re headed for burnout.

Stop before you get there. Because recovering from burnout takes a long time – just like recovering from a broken bone or torn ligament.