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Because it’s largely invisible, the emotional labour and ‘worry work’ that often falls to women doesn't get recognized as work.FG Trade

The other day, Ksenia Barton was sorting through paperwork for her taxes and thought, there’s a lot of work here. Orthodontics, dental and medical appointments. Permission slips for her kids. Volunteering and social events. Birthdays. Appointments for her aging parents. Managing household bills.

“So many of these pieces of paper represented tasks that people don’t even know that I did,” she says.

Each receipt represented emotional labour – a combination of planning, caregiving, managing the household and the “worry work” of life that often comes at personal expense to women. This work is unseen, uncompensated, unrecognized and endless.

Based in Burnaby, Ms. Barton is a mother of two teenagers, one of whom struggles with ADHD as well as other educational challenges and needed home-schooling to be successful. Her second child also has ADHD.

During the pandemic, Ms. Barton felt compelled to play a larger role in addressing her teens’ social needs and being there for them emotionally. She helped her husband with the stress and demands of his career and helped her siblings care for her parents, whose increasing needs led them to move into a long-term care facility in 2020.

“The pandemic wasn’t even a thing to me compared to the tremendous stress and drama of helping my parents,” Ms. Barton says. “It’s work that again is unseen, unrecognized. No one prepares you for it. There is no support. There are no road maps.”

In taking responsibility for all these areas, Ms. Barton says she paid a price in her career and life. A professional biologist, Ms. Barton had a consulting career, which ended up on the back burner. She took contracts as she could to work around her schedule and in 2021 became a certified life coach.

“From day one of parenting, there was this sort of shocking amount of need in my family,” Ms. Barton says. “It was [the] planning and anticipating and keeping track of details and communicating with professionals – just the really boring, frustrating and the life maintenance crap,” she laughs. “[It] fell to me.”

‘Worry work’ is a typically a women’s issue

Emotional labour existed before the pandemic. Coined by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in 1983 to describe managing feelings to fulfill the requirements of a job, the term was later borrowed in 2017 by author Gemma Hartley to describe the unpaid, invisible work women do to manage emotional needs at home and at work.

Because it’s largely invisible, emotional labour doesn’t get recognized as work, says Dr. Nazilla Khanlou, women’s health research chair in mental health and associate professor at York University.

She notes that even the term “worry work” conveys that it is woman’s weakness when she is not able to manage.

“The terminology invokes in me the notion that [it is] the problem of the woman. The woman is worried, she’s a worrier, it’s her issue; it’s not anyone else’s issue,” Dr. Khanlou says.

“The reason why [this kind of work] can mentally affect us is that we’re doing it for loved ones. It’s not a part of our paid job. We’re doing it for our children, for our parents, for our dependants and it stays with us.”

Most modern work settings haven’t changed to accommodate caregivers looking after young children, elderly relatives and persons with disabilities, Dr. Khanlou says.

“Work is still set up in most settings around old values or patriarchal values. Especially in North America, these are values of the nuclear family, where the mom stayed home and was responsible for everything home-related and the father worked full time and was responsible for everything in the context of finance,” she says.

Planning and organizing children’s lives has fallen on women more than men for a long time, agrees Dr. Sara Dorow, professor and chair of sociology at the University of Alberta. The pandemic just made emotional labour more visible.

“[With] COVID, home-schooling, working at home and everything, those demands became both really obvious and also much harder in many cases,” she says.

Surveys showed pandemic-era emotional labour could be overwhelming for women, leading to consequences for women’s careers and mental health. A report released in January by Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) suggested women in Canada were reporting the highest levels of anxiety, loneliness and depression since the start of the pandemic.

In Dr. Dorow’s recent research focusing on workers in Ontario and Alberta, her team asked people how COVID-19 had affected their work and lives. She says it was more common for women to discuss the extra effort – and sometimes impossibility – of juggling home-based school and child care with home-based paid work.

“Most of the men in the study talked only about impacts of COVID on their paid job,” she says.

Dr. Khanlou notes that a younger generation more aware of their emotions may help make emotional labour more visible. Similarly, Dr. Dorow says research she’s done with tradespeople working in the oil sands has shown evidence of a generational shift in thinking when it comes to outdated notions of men’s vs. women’s work.

“The more involved that men are in care work, for example, the more it’s like, ‘Oh, gee, maybe this isn’t something just naturally that belongs to women,’” she says.

The power of policy changes and awareness

When emotional labour becomes more equitable, it’s beneficial for everyone, Dr. Khanlou says. But to achieve that greater equity, it’s important to look at the types of family- or health-oriented policies that could contribute to that.

“What are the types of policies that we have at the national, federal and provincial levels so that work is less based on patriarchal, old values of what a nuclear family should be, and more up to date with different types of families?” Dr. Khanlou says.

It’s also important to raise awareness through our families and social networks of the immense load that women carry, Dr. Khanlou says. “We are kind of applauded when we do it quietly and don’t complain.” Resources that help parents find others who are facing the same challenges would also help them be less afraid to voice their issues, she adds.

Dr. Dorow says that more flexible, affordable and robust child-care and eldercare policies could help individuals better manage all aspects of their lives. Increased mental health policies and programs in the workplace could also be beneficial, particularly if approached from a gendered lens, “[taking] into account the different kinds of psychosocial burdens on men and women in the workplace,” she says.

Ms. Barton says that being more aware of her thoughts and feelings has helped her deal with the heavy load of worry work in her life.

“It doesn’t sound like that would make a difference, but it really does, because I went through years of resentment, anxiety, worry, frustration, annoyance, anger at my partner,” she says. “All of that came from what was going on in my brain. It didn’t come from doing the work.”

Ms. Barton says that when she was honest with herself, she understood that helping her children is her “joy and privilege.”

“These actions reflect who I want to be in this world,” she says. “And there’s incredible meaning in doing the work to support the people we love.”

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