The Connection Between ‘Emotional Labor’ and Highly Sensitive People

A highly sensitive person experiences emotional labor

“Emotional labor” is the exhausting effort of suppressing your emotions when you interact with other people at work.

When I was in college, I spent my summers working as a server at a Tex-Mex restaurant in my hometown. The tips were great, the atmosphere was fun, and I worked with my friends. It was a blast, but, as with any service industry job, it also had its challenging moments.

I remember delivering fajitas to a man’s table during lunch one day, only to find that the order was incorrect. Of course, mistakes like this happened sometimes and customers were usually gracious with us. In this instance, though, the man screamed in my face. “Are you people stupid? This isn’t what I ordered! Forget it. I don’t even want anything.”

Years later, I can still recall his red, angry face and the spittle shooting from his mouth as he yelled at me. As a 21-year-old woman, being yelled at by this older man was incredibly jarring. My hands shook and my heart raced, but I was on the job. As much as I wanted to run away, I had to remain calm.

“I’m so sorry,” I said calmly. “We will take this off your bill.”

Feeling sick to my stomach, I went to the back of the restaurant to breathe and share with one of the other servers what had just happened. “That guy is a jerk,” she’d said. “Don’t worry about him.”

What Is ‘Emotional Labor’?

This instance is an example of the “emotional labor” expected in the restaurant industry. If you’re unfamiliar with the term emotional labor, it “refers to regulating or managing emotional expressions with others as part of one’s professional work role.”

In other words, no matter how rude or difficult customers are, we must keep a smile on our faces and remain calm. Of course, emotional labor isn’t subject only to the restaurant industry. You’ll find it as an unwritten expectation in caretaking roles, customer-facing jobs, and, really, any job you have working with other human beings.

As you can imagine, constant emotional labor can take a toll on a person, especially if you’re highly sensitive. We already feel everything on a deeper level than others. So for us HSPs, dealing with stress and conflict can become overwhelming quickly. And if we’re experiencing this on a daily basis, we eventually risk burning out.

What Emotional Labor Looks Like on the Job 

After I graduated from college, I got my first job in the corporate retail industry. This is it! I’d thought to myself. No more dealing with angry customers. I knew the corporate world would have its own set of challenges, but I assumed my days of smiling through blatant rudeness were over.

Oh, how wrong I was!

As I mentioned, emotional labor is going to be part of any job that consists of working with other human beings. In an office setting, this may look like dealing with a boss who snaps at you when they’re stressed or biting your tongue when your coworker is constantly complaining and gossiping.

In a caretaking role, emotional labor may look like smiling and being kind to that patient who takes their frustration out on you. When a patient’s family is yelling at you because they aren’t happy with the care the doctor provided. You guessed it, your calm, measured response requires emotional labor.

In a sense, emotional labor is part of being an adult, right? There are always going to be scenarios where we’ll be expected to respond in a calm, respectful way — even if the person on the other end isn’t adhering to that. However, always needing to mask your feelings can weigh on a person.

According to an article published on Psychology Today, “There is little doubt that constant emotional labor is exhausting. Studies show that the cumulative effects of constant episodes of masking true feelings with a smile are burnout, strain, job dissatisfaction, and turnover.”

Now, let’s look at how emotional labor impacts HSPs specifically.

How Emotional Labor Contributes to an HSP’s Burnout

For sensitive people, the risk of burnout due to emotional labor is likely higher than it is for non-HSPs. There are a few reasons for this.

For one, as HSPs, we’re naturally more impacted by our environments. If someone is upset, we can often physically feel it in our bones due to our capacity for deep empathy. If there’s a shift in energy in the room, we can sense it.

HSPs are more prone to burnout because we are simply more affected by stress than our less-sensitive counterparts. Our nervous systems are finely tuned and reactive, so when we’re getting yelled at, our heart may be racing and our stomach in knots, all while we’re covering it up with a smile. 

Unfortunately, I experienced burnout while working that corporate retail job I’d been so excited to land. As a driven young woman, I’d started my career with a burning desire to work my way up the top of the corporate ladder. However, I quickly learned that this particular environment was unhealthy for me due to the amount of emotional labor required.

At this corporate job, it wasn’t unusual for the management team to yell at us in  our weekly business meetings. We were expected to always be on our toes with the answers they were looking for, and if we didn’t have it right, we could expect a harsh reaction.

My less sensitive coworkers were able to shrug and let it roll off their backs. But for me, my sensitive soul deeply feared being yelled at. Every time it happened, I felt sick to my stomach while calmly nodding and fighting back tears.

Eventually, it took its toll on me. After two years of dealing with this tense environment — along with a stressed-out, micromanaging boss — I hit a breaking point. I experienced severe digestive issues as a result of my chronic stress and had to quit.

In speaking with many other HSPs, I’ve learned that my story isn’t unique. There are many highly skilled and smart sensitive types out there who’ve experienced burnout as a result of too much emotional labor on the job. Fortunately, there are ways we can manage this that don’t always require quitting our jobs.

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How HSPs Can Manage the Impact of Emotional Labor

First and foremost, I think it’s important to approach this from an empowered stance. As sensitive people, we are not victims of our environment. We are not “weak” because we’re more impacted by stressful situations. We are simply wired differently. We’re more perceptive, aware, and in tune with our environments. And, yes, we’re more emotional and cry more easily than non-HSPs. But these are all strengths of being an HSP. However, at the same time, we also have to know how to take great care of ourselves in order to manage it.

The reality is, we can’t control what happens in the world around us. All we can do is be mindful of how we respond to it. This puts the control back in our hands. So, if you have a job that requires a lot of emotional labor, I’d highly recommend beginning your day with a mindful practice that makes you feel calm and centered.

After experiencing burnout in my corporate job, it became a non-negotiable for me to start every single day with a 10-minute meditation. This simple practice allows me to connect to myself and be intentional about the way I move into my day. As an HSP, I especially love cord-cutting meditations. This type of meditation is helpful for HSPs because it’s a practice that allows us to disconnect from other people’s emotions, energy, or moods, and reconnect to ourselves. (Here’s my cord-cutting meditation for HSPs that you may enjoy.)

Some other ways for you to start your day mindfully include: taking a short walk, writing in your journal, listening to soft music while drinking tea, doing breathwork (I like a breathing exercise called Box Breathing), practicing yoga, or tending to your garden.

It’s important for us HSPs to have healthy ways to calm our nervous system so that, no matter what happens in the day ahead, we know we’ve done something positive for our mental and emotional well-being. I like to think of it as making deposits into our mental health “bank account.” This way, when something stressful happens, we aren’t nearly as impacted by it.

I also find it helpful to have go-to practices — as part of your “HSP mental health toolbox” — you can turn to when a stressful event happens at work. For instance, if you’re feeling exhausted after dealing with a difficult customer, excuse yourself when you’re able to — even just for a few minutes — and practice deep breathing to calm your nervous system. I also love this Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) practice that can be practiced any time, anywhere. If you’re unfamiliar with EFT, it’s an alternative treatment for physical pain and emotional distress that’s practiced by tapping on different acupressure points on the body.

At the end of the day, it’s up to us to take control of our own experience as much as we can. That means taking our mental health seriously and cultivating healthy practices that calm our nervous system. That also means being aware of when enough is enough and not staying in a job which is negatively impacting our health day after day. 

You’ll know your job has become unhealthy when you feel a sense of dread or anxiety about going to work each day. This may even be affecting you physically, which is another warning sign. Another example your job is toxic is if you’re being mistreated, which might look like a boss not respecting your boundaries, being talked down to, or feeling like you’re constantly walking on eggshells, to name a few.

In most professions, emotional labor is going to be a necessary evil and something we can learn to manage in a healthy way. However, it’s important we know the difference between manageable emotional labor and unhealthy emotional labor that’s burning us out.

If you want to learn how to manage overwhelm as an HSP, check out my guide, The HSP’s Guide to Overcome Overwhelm!

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