Emotional Stress: The Emotional Labor of Online Business Owners

Giving Too Much of Yourself - Emotional Labor

How Many Jobs Do You Work? 

Busy doesn’t begin to cover it. Tired doesn’t begin to describe how you feel some days. Yet there you are, the boss lady in charge of everything, it seems. When you’re not working, you’re working. Do you remember what it was like to not have a perpetually cycling to-do list running through your mind?

Welcome GTS Guest: Amy Cardris

Many of us have families with children. Being a mom is a full-time job, regardless of what paid work you do. Many of us have businesses. I’m a freelance writer and blogger. I also work a traditional full-time job outside the home. By my count, that’s three jobs.

My full-time job is critical to my family because it comes with a generous benefits package, security, and I enjoy what I do. However, my spouse doesn’t earn very much doing what he loves, thus I write for money, too. We live in a very expensive area where my job is in an 800 sq foot townhouse with one bathroom. I write because I am determined to eliminate our debt, buy a house with a whole second bathroom, and maybe just not have to track every single dollar. Talk about the emotional stress!  

I could take time to lament our economy, wherein two full-time incomes are insufficient for a family of three to really live comfortably; however, there are plenty of articles and blog posts about the rise of the gig economy and how really it is a necessity that drives us. So let’s talk about the toll of an invisible kind of work on women.   

It’s a Business, Woman! And It Comes With Emotional Stress

I’m going to call our myriad of online efforts to make money, businesses. Just like that. Your blog is a business. Your Etsy store is a business. Your consulting services are a business.

Pro Tip: Treating your business like a business will create more business for you. So, write yourself a business plan.

Running a business is hard enough whether it’s a brick-and-mortar shop or a work from anywhere gig. You can lock the doors on a shop but technology and the internet has the luxury to follow you everywhere. It’s a blessing and a curse to be able to work from anywhere. Many women who run online businesses almost feel like they can’t take vacations because they can always be online and available. 

You’re not alone if you feel the ghost of being haunted by your laptop. There’s a way to escape from the ghosts all around you, those demanding you see and hear all the to-do tasks awaiting you. We’ll get to that in a bit.

Household Labor and Emotional Labor 

My wonderful and flawed spouse is in graduate school right now, and most of the domestic tasks have fallen to me. I recognize that I am unusual in that this is new for me. For most of our relationship, the kitchen has been the purview of my spouse. He does most of the shopping, cooking, and cleaning. However, the emotional stress accumulates as he has ADHD, which makes completing his schoolwork on time difficult, on top of working full-time and being a new and involved dad. So I have taken on more than my fair share of housework, at the moment. 

It’s unusual for me because it is not the norm that my husband does the majority of domestic work. According to this study, in dual-earning households, the more the woman makes, the less housework the man does. These men are trying to re-balance what they believe the gender norm should be. They feel emasculated by their spouses earning more than they do, and so they exact more work of their wives to compensate and make themselves feel better. 

So there you are, working multiple full-time jobs but your work doesn’t stop there. If you have a man in your life who behaves like those described in that study, you undoubtedly face an unfair burden of emotional stress and labor upon your shoulders.

Giving Too Much of Yourself - Emotional Labor

Remember when I referred to my spouse as wonderfully flawed? While he is an excellent example of a feminist-in-training, with dreams of egalitarian households and breaking gender norms, he cannot escape influences from the messages he received growing up. This primarily manifests in his inability to properly identify and communicate his emotions. He’s working on it, but it’s been a years-long process, and he still has work to do like many of us who want to become better versions of ourselves. 

Here are some common concepts that men absorb from the people in their lives, and society:

  • Emotions are the domain of women.
  • Expressing emotions other than anger makes men “feminine”.
  • “Feminine” = bad. I.E.: An insult for men or boys (pussy, b*tch, weak, sissy, you_____like a girl, etc).
  • The only people you are allowed to be vulnerable or open with are women.
  • Men’s emotions are the responsibility of women to manage.

*I will hereby refer to these as Nonsense Concepts and will reference them throughout. 


What is Emotional Labor? 

Much of this can be encompassed by the problem of emotional labor. If you’re not familiar with the concept, read this Huffington Post article authored by a therapist. She sees patients, mostly women, many of whom have very similar struggles with emotional stress in their lives. In the article, she describes the problem of emotional labor in heterosexual couples with striking clarity:

“When I work in therapy with heterosexual couples, the disparity of training each gender receives in emotional management is stark. Often, the woman is aware of her male partner’s needs and feelings at the expense of her own, whereas the male partner struggles to identify and understand both his own and his partner’s emotions. He has been taught that it is either dangerous, not manly, or not his job to feel and respond to feelings, including his own. It’s tragic. As a female therapist, I often have an urge to join the female partner and save the man from the struggle and embarrassment of this work. We name his feelings for him, begin extrapolating on them, and once again, the man becomes an emotional project of women.” (Nonsense Concepts 1, 4, and 5).

When my husband is upset about something, I often am the one who can articulate what and why. His face lights up and he goes “Yes! That’s exactly right!” It’s cathartic for him to have his emotions properly identified, by me. It would be even better for him if it came from him, and less sleuth work on my part. 

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Emotional Labor in the Workplace

You may be surprised to know that emotional stress and labor isn’t just a drain on women at home. It’s a burden that can follow you around anywhere. If you work outside the home, emotional labor will follow you and make demands of you at the office, on your commute, and finally, when you get home. The emotional stress is confounding.

The Public Administration Review examined the role of emotional labor in the public service sector and its relationship to the wage gap. Many people cite job segregation as the reason why women, overall, earn less than men. But these researchers asked the question, why do “women’s” jobs pay less? (Nonsense Concept #1.)

They posit that emotional labor is the answer. Many public service jobs require skills that are traditionally considered to be the purview of women, including “caring, negotiating, empathizing, smoothing troubled relationships, and working behind the scenes to enable cooperation.” These skills are not included in job descriptions or in employee evaluations, and these skills are not compensated.

How much trouble would any government agency, or any private company be, without people (women) who brought these typ of skills to work every day? 

Real Examples of Emotional Labor: As a woman —

  • If you work outside the home, who is it that organizes team building exercises? Remembers coworkers birthdays? (Nonsense Concept #1).
  • Do you have to monitor your tone in emails or in meetings to manage the emotions of your coworkers or clients? (Nonsense Concept #5)
  • Are you the dumping ground for the relationship woes of your male colleagues, who share too much, unasked? (Nonsense Concept #4).

These are all examples of emotional labor in the office that women are not compensated for.

And the kicker? The Journal of Applied Psychology published a study that determined that when men are altruistic in the workplace, they are rewarded and praised like puppies the first time they go pee pee in the yard instead of in the house (exaggeration I know). However, if a woman does not behave altruistically, she is judged, because the expectation is that women will go above and beyond for others, and men will behave selfishly. 


Emotional Labor of The Entrepreneur

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If you are an entrepreneur you can’t escape all emotional stress and labor in your life. True, you skip out on the office emotional labor because you don’t have to deal with getting passed over for promotions. You don’t have to deal with the frustration of saying something for months on end and never being heard, but then spontaneously combust when a man says the exact same thing and everyone suddenly listens. You don’t have office fridges to clean, or a smile plastered on your face all day every day. But…

Here’s what you may encounter if you run an online business.

Managing Your Tone

How many times have you read and then re-read a post, an email, a query or pitch letter, just to analyze your tone? Tone in written communication is famously tricky. Key, non-verbal language like facial expressions, gestures, or verbal cues to pick up on is completely absent…unless someone is using emoticons like a crack head enjoying their fix. You not only have to convey what you want to say, but be careful to ensure it’s read the way you meant it, too. Hence exclamation marks to show you’re happy about something! OR SHOUTING AT SOMEONE! Sometimes you might get wordy, just so the receiver doesn’t misconstrue your directness for shortness.  

Ah, the emotion stress from writing and receiving emails… is it worth it? Absolutely, but it’s not always easy.

Managing Egos

Particularly when you work with multiple clients, you can run into the widest array of personalities, and let’s face it, egos. Maybe the last project you did was straight-forward, with a company that was a pleasure to work with. Not so with this latest client. It’s good money, but the headache of communicating with this person! 

So you do your best to figure them out and what makes them tick, and what ticks them off. You spend your energy being a chameleon, trying to adapt to whoever you are working with at the moment. Isn’t this why you left the office in the first place? At least you don’t have to see this person in person. 

Managing Disorganized People

Your payment is past due. You’ve sent invoices and reminders. You’re sending one last “friendly reminder” before you lose your cool, and you put a lot of effort into sounding calm, cool, and collected in your communications. You’re a professional here, but the people on the other hand don’t have their stuff together. Meanwhile, you rely on them being organized, or at least responding to your prompts, for your living! 

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Maybe you’re working with people who are unclear in what they want from you. It can be like pulling teeth to figure out what you need to do. If you have kids, you undoubtedly have top-tier investigatory skills and can get to the bottom of things. Your kids are far cuter than your customers or colleagues, though. It’s tiring to constantly having to drag information out of them. 

Managing Expectations

We expect a lot of ourselves. We are constantly pulled by our children, our partners, our work obligations, our other relationships. And, we are often pushed by our own motivations. That’s a lot of tension being exerted on poor, tired you. We expect that we can do it all, have it all, balance it all, and not let any balls drop. But it can and WILL catch up to you, don’t let that kind of emotional stress get out of hand.

If you feel like you have a calendar and a stopwatch that live in your head, constantly reminding you of the time, of deadlines, of the laundry that needs to be dried before you can go to bed, you are doing a significant amount of invisible work and it’s wearing you out. Delegate, delegate, delegate!

Emotional Labor and Your Children 

If something’s gotta give, it obviously can’t be our children. Of all the people in your life that exact emotional stress and labor on your heart, your children are probably the most deserving and innocent. After all, they are still learning to identify their own emotions and learning how to put words to their emotions.

Teaching our children to be emotionally capable humans is hard work. This is partly why it can be so frustrating when you’re the only adult in the house who can put words to emotions. You try to model communicating your sadness, empathy, tiredness and disappointment, and your excitement and enthusiasm when the opportunity arises.

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Perhaps your partner relies on your strength during times of emotional stresses. They may shuts down when sad, smoke when stressed, or create some distance in his relationships instead of communicating. If this is the behavior he is modeling, you are facing an extra hard battle of teaching your children, especially your boys, that emotion is a human domain, and we are all responsible for our own feelings. 

Emotional Labor and Your Sanity

If something’s gotta give, it can’t be your children, and it can’t be you! It’s so important to take care of yourself, physically and emotionally. Our mental health needs just as much care and attention as our physical health. But when do I have time, you ask? We often allow ourselves to fall to the bottom of the pile.

Here’s the secret, though. When you aren’t prioritizing taking care of your needs, everything else you do suffers. Your work isn’t as good. You are short with your family. You just feel out of sorts and out of control. 

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No one has yet found a way to get more than 24 hours out of a day.  However, there are things that you can do that will help protect your emotional health. 

Establishing Boundaries to Protect Your Emotional Energy

One of the most important and hardest, things that you can do is to set boundaries for yourself. Maybe you don’t know how to do it. Essentially, an emotional boundary is a limit that you set that defines what you will and will not tolerate. Boundaries are to control your own behavior and manage your emotion stress. You cannot control the behaviors of others. However, with the right fences or boundaries up, there are only certain things that you will let into your emotional yard, where you are in control.  

Example: Your partner asks you every day about the goings-on for your family. You keep a calendar in a mutually-accessible place, but he says it’s easier to just ask you. What he’s doing is asking you to do the work of looking at the day or week’s events, and reporting to him what’s coming up. This can build resentment because he can just as easily figure it out on his own. He doesn’t see why it’s a big deal for you to just tell him the activities for the week, and who’s driving the kids to practice tomorrow, but for you, it’s just another thing you have to mentally keep track of, and you’re TIRED. 

Boundary: State that you expect him to be aware of the family’s events, and that you will not look up information that he can easily find himself. You will keep up your end by marking events in the calendar that you know of, and he will do the same. You might find he will step up to the challenge when you firmly and gently hold your ground and refuse to do his organizational homework for him. 

Example: You have a friend that overshares their family drama every time you see or talk to them. It’s past the line where you are lending a supportive ear, and all your time and energy spent with this person is just listening to their woes. You don’t have the opportunity to share anything about your life, and even if there was space in the conversation to do so, it would feel wrong, somehow, to share your joys while your friend is mired in drama.

Boundary: Tell your friend that you sympathize with where they are coming from, and that you understand that their family drama is very consuming to them. Let them know that you would like your conversations to be a give and take, and that you miss talking about other things with them. Say that you expect to be able to share about your life as well, and have them listen as genuinely as they listen to you. Encourage them to talk to a professional, as you are not their free therapist.


Establish Boundaries Reduce Emotional Stress

Here are steps you can take to establish boundaries to protect your emotional health.

  1. Develop and strengthen respect for yourself. If you are still operating under the assumption that you in some way deserve the treatment that bothers you, there is no point in establishing boundaries. Start by valuing yourself enough to be able to say “This behavior is unacceptable, and I don’t have to put up with it.” You are your own best advocate.
  2. Take some time to get in touch with your emotions. If something is rankling you, can you put your finger on what exactly it is that bothers you? When X happens, how do you feel? What impact does a person’s actions have on you? 
  3. Figure out where your fence is on different issues. First, you must be consistent with yourself before you can expect that consistency of others.
  4. Be clear in establishing boundaries with others. Use “I” statements. “I feel _____, when ________. What I need from you is _________.” This balance of assertiveness and kindness can help the other person be open to what you are saying. 
  5. Learn that it’s okay to say no. You don’t owe everyone all your time and energy. 
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If you are dealing with people professionally that sapping your emotional energy, here are some examples of boundaries that you can set with them.

  1. For someone who expects you to be available 24-7: “I understand that it’s important for us to remain in touch about this___________. However, my evenings are family time for me, therefore I won’t be available by email between the hours of 6:00 PM and 7:00 AM.”
  2. For someone who uses rude language or tones with you: “I conduct myself professionally and address everyone with respect, and I expect the same treatment. You may not know that you’re doing this, but when you do ______ you come off as _______. Please address me courteously in our discourse.”
  3. For someone who wants to discuss topics that are offensive or off-limits to you, define those parameters: “I don’t appreciate it when you want to discuss/joke about/ask me about _____. I’d love to talk about X, Y, and Z with you, though.”

Ways to Take Care of Your Own Emotional Needs

Setting boundaries are one critical way to preserve your emotional energy. If you’re in the habit of being sapped day-in and day-out, here are some next steps that you can take to bring some balance into your life and increase and protect your emotional reserves.

  1. Talk to a therapist! Let’s get one thing clear, there is nothing stigmatizing about talking to a therapist. They are professional listeners and perspective givers. You probably play therapist to someone(s) in your life, but you surely don’t get paid for it! Be sure you aren’t that person for someone else either, taking up their time and energy for free so that you can unload and feel so much better. A great way to do this is to find a professional therapist who can listen and guide you. Talk to your health provider, or check out an online therapy option. 
  2. Meditate. Practicing mindfulness, or meditating, for only 20 minutes a day has been shown to improve concentration, decision making, and reduce stress. And the great news is, you don’t have to be a pro to be successful at meditation! While it is a learned skill, you will reap benefits by just focusing on the basics like sitting comfortably, relaxing your muscles, focusing on your breath, and acknowledging but not focusing on thoughts that enter your mind (and they will, especially as a new practicer).
  3. Unplug and spend time out in nature. “Forest Bathing” may be something that you’ve heard of. It’s simple, head outside and utilize your senses to really take in nature. Being outside for even a few hours has been found to decrease your pulse, depression, fatigue, anxiety, and confusion. You don’t have to exercise to forest bathe. Note – these effects are not observed in urban walking, or when you incorporate technology. Yes, you have to actually go into nature and be present in nature in order to benefit in these ways. 
  4. Prioritize sleep! Sleep is not something that you should find time for, but instead make time for. Going to bed at the same time and waking at the same time gives you consistent energy throughout the day, improves your mood, alertness, immune function, and memory, increases the quality of sleep that you get, and decreases pain.

At the end of our long days, we often feel stressed and drained. It’s even worse when you wake up feeling drained. By recognizing the things and people that exact emotional stress and labor from you, setting boundaries to protect your emotional energy, and adopting practices to restore and maintain your levels of emotional energy, you will be able to handle your balancing act with greater patience, appreciation, and self-respect.

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By making and taking time to value your emotional energy, you may find that your productivity increases, as well. And if not, isn’t it worth it to you to be happier and more content day-to-day?

Tell us, wonder women, what other things do you do to restore and protect your emotional energy while balancing it all?

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Amy Cardris is a freelance writer and balanced lifestyle blogger. She writes about juggling work, family, a sustainable life, and health. Her current balancing act includes her 8-month-old baby, five four-legged babies, her spouse, her house, a FT “real job”, and getting strong after a difficult pregnancy and birth experience.

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Visit their Website: www.amycardris.com

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