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How Much Is Your Emotional Labor Worth?

I recently read an article on Higher Ed Jobs discussing the concept of quiet quitting in higher education. Their premise was that, while, yes, quiet quitting is an appropriate way of setting boundaries at work, it will also negatively impact the value of what colleges and universities have to offer. The article states “Cue the quiet quitting, and colleges and universities might become very different places (and, dare we say, diminish their value).” And they’re not wrong. But the piece that is missing in this discussion is the value of emotional labor, because that is what disappears when people start acting their wage, and that is what organizations have long been getting for free.

Professions requiring the highest levels of emotional labor are the helping professions. What makes a great nurse, teacher, or social worker? Beyond experience and training, it comes down to how much they care. The best teachers we had as kids were the ones who brought a tremendous amount of care, (i.e. emotional labor), to the classroom every day. As an adult who has worked in various helping professions, I can now say that emotional labor is, without a doubt, labor, and one of the reasons teaching is such a high burnout profession. And while students, clients, and patients benefit tremendously from said emotional labor, guess who benefits financially? It is not the teachers and nurses and daycare providers and social workers. It is the institutions for which they work.

From 2014 until 2017 I worked for a “non-profit” organization. (I’ll explain later why I put that in quotes). This organization specializes in supporting at-risk children and families. When I applied for the job, I was so passionate about helping others, that I accepted the position, despite the fact that the starting pay was $14 per hour. Not only that, but none of the employees were full-time, so no benefits were provided. And when I say “not full-time” I mean, we worked 39.5 hours per week. We used our own personal vehicles to visit families and drive them to appointments, attend court hearings, supervise visits, and respond to crises. We took turns manning 24-hour on-call shifts and put ourselves in scary, often dangerous situations. During this period of my life, I struggled to pay my bills and went so far into credit card debt that it took me years to recover. But I loved the work, and my employers benefitted from that massively.

After three years my financial situation became so dire that I had to leave and make a career change. When I left, I started doing some digging into the company structure. It turns out that this wonderful 501 C-3 (*cough-tax-exempt-cough*) organization, was also operating not only as a government contractor but was also OWNED by a multi-million-dollar private company.

So, to answer the question of who benefits from the care and emotional labor of employees, it is without a doubt, the wealthiest among us. For institutions in the business of helping, such as colleges and universities, which rely upon the kindness and commitment of their employees, now might be a good time to start valuing their emotional labor in the form of actual money. Because a business model that is built on free emotional labor is about to be in for a rude awakening. People are finding their power, and with it, their value. Emotional labor is labor. Employees deserve to be paid for that.


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