Emotional labor in creative professions + mixed media art journal page video

Published by Nela Dunato on in Art, Business, Mindset, Nela's Art Chat, Thoughts, Tips for creatives, Video

When creatives talk to each other, we often discuss ideas, plans, techniques, and tools. If we feel safe enough, we may discuss practical tips for dealing with clients like getting paid, contracts, red flags… But in all these years I’ve rarely heard anyone talk about emotional labor and how it affects our well-being. I think it’s time we talk about it more.

Listen to audio only:

Full transcript is included below!

Tools used in this drawing:

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Finished drawing

Episode transcript

In her article “Toiling in the Field of Emotion” (2008), psychiatrist Harriet Fraad uses the term emotional labor to describe the effort to understand others and help them feel better:

“Emotional labor is the expenditure of time, effort, and energy utilizing brain and muscle to understand and fulfill emotional needs. By emotional needs, I mean the human needs for feeling wanted, appreciated, loved, and cared for. Individuals’ emotional needs are often unspoken or unknown/unconscious. Emotional labor often occurs together with physical labor (producing goods or services), but emotional labor differs from physical labor by aiming to produce the specific feelings of being wanted, appreciated, loved, and/or cared for.”

“Many roles and occupations depend heavily on emotional labor, and if it’s done well, others hardly notice the effort involved.”

Harriet Fraad

Creative work is work.

Years ago I completed a few personal art commissions for someone. The amount I charged them wasn’t worth the time I spent working, so I decided I won’t be doing personal art commissions ever again.

Later this person sent me a group message that included a potential interested client for the same type of project. I said I was sorry but that I no longer do projects like that, because I have plenty of work as is.

This person replied: “You could do it in your free time.”
I responded: “I work hard enough, I want to use my free time to relax!”

I thought that suggesting I should be sacrificing my free time to work on commissions was mighty impolite. But in this person’s mind it just didn’t compute. People who haven’t had that experience don’t understand that creative work is just as taxing as other types of work, and that there’s a limit to how much of it we can do and stay in good health.

All creative work is not the same.

I’m a huge proponent of creative hobbies, even if you work in a creative profession. I’ve talked to many, many creative pros who told me that discovering an activity that was completely unrelated to their day job had so many benefits.

I’ve talked and written about this subject many times:

Clearly, I have a lot to say on this. But I’ve never expressed what I’m about to say in this way. When the thought popped into my head, I had to write it down because that is it for me. That’s what this is really about.

Why is it that I can still sketch or paint my personal projects after I’ve spent the day doing design work? Yet I could not be working on paid client art commissions at the same time?

What makes my professional work so exhausting, and my personal work so replenishing?

The key difference is: professional creative work requires a lot of emotional labor.

Doing creative work on behalf of a client requires a tremendous amount of empathy for their needs.

  • What do they like?
  • Will they like this thing I make for them?
  • How much are they willing to pay?
  • Will they think the results are worth their investment?
  • How responsive should I be in my communications?
  • Have I phrased this properly?
  • Will they be offended if I object to their request?
  • How can I find a win-win solution for this issue?
  • How do I politely remind them that I can’t start working until they pay me?
  • How do I negotiate a boundary?

If you think I’m exaggerating, I wish you could spend a day inside my head so you can see for yourself. I don’t make a single decision before carefully thinking through the client’s perspective, and other project stakeholders’ (their clients, their colleagues, their partners…)

Sometimes I make things easier for myself by creating policies, which cuts down the amount of overthinking and decision-making. But even in the best of cases, I’m constantly thinking about my clients’ needs while I’m creating something for them.

The main reason why I avoid working on multiple branding projects at once is not because I don’t have the time to fit it into my schedule—it’s because caring for the needs of multiple clients is taxing. Yet, I can’t make myself care any less.

Creating out of my own inspiration and for my own enjoyment is as relaxing, freeing, and unburdened as it gets.

When I lock up my office every August and run off to the beach, I’m still able to sketch and doodle almost every single day. When I take a mental health break from client work and teaching so I don’t burn out, I can still create my own original artwork. (If I’ve allowed myself to actually burn out, then it’s a different story.)

When I’ve evicted the clients’ projections from my mind, I can tune into my own authentic thoughts and experience my own authentic emotions. This is what my personal creativity provides to me—the opportunity to shake off all external expectations.

Yes, personal creative work still takes effort.
Yes, it takes skill.
Yes, it takes focus.
But it takes very little emotional labor.

Once you wake up to the reality of emotional labor, you recognize it everywhere.

It was here the whole time, I just didn’t have the word for it. My grandmother never knew about this term, yet she labored all her life. My mother understands the impact of it, but I don’t know if she has learned the term. Entire generations had their labor discounted because it didn’t feel “real”.

Thankfully, our generation understands the impact of emotional labor on people’s wellbeing. We understand now that some of the lowest paid jobs have some of the highest demands for emotional labor, and that it disproportionately impacts women.

Emotional labor in itself is not harmful, but forcing people to provide excessive emotional labor can cause serious harm.

Emotional labor should be recognized and valued.

Emotional labor is not “free”. Those that perform it are paying the price.

Since we can’t put a price tag on it, we’re basing our fees on measurable parameters—concrete deliverables or time spent working. That’s fine by me, as long as I’m compensated well enough that I can take time off and recover.

There is however a well known concept of a “PITA client fee” in freelance and agency circles, reserved for demanding and unreasonable clients. In this case, the disproportionate emotional labor such a client demands is quantified, but only internally of course—the client doesn’t know they’re paying more than other people.

Different jobs require different levels of emotional labor.

Since the amount is not clearly outlined in the job description, different people performing the same job will expend different amounts of emotional labor based on what they feel is needed. This largely depends on their personality and circumstances. 

People that were socialized to cater to the needs of others will expend more than people whose needs were catered to. Someone who was raised as an only son expends much less emotional labor than someone who grew up as the oldest daughter. Members of ethnic or other minorities are often forced to expend a disproportionate amount of emotional labor in order to “prove” themselves and counter prejudices.

As long as the importance and value of emotional labor in the workplace is ignored, it will keep falling onto the backs of those who have been traditionally exploited.

When I was a creative agency employee, my supervisors shielded me from a big chunk of client-focused emotional labor. They led all the meetings, and I had no direct communication with the clients. Sounds great on paper, but this had many downsides. I wasn’t able to “vibe check” the clients, ask clarifying questions, or push back when they had unreasonable requests. By the end of my employment contract I was emotionally checked out.

By becoming a freelancer, I knowingly took on a great deal more emotional labor than before, and it resulted in higher quality of my work and renewed passion for my profession. For me, the trade-off is worth it, but I also have to balance how much of myself I can afford to give to my work, so that I still have plenty of capacity left for living my life.

How much is too much?

Those of us who run our own business can choose how much labor weʼre willing to expend, but only if weʼre aware of it and have a healthy sense of boundaries. Unfortunately many people don’t, so we’re roped into our practiced role by default. It’s hard to change old habits.

It may not look like a “choice” if we’ve been conditioned to think that any misstep we make will result in retaliation. Liberating ourselves from the obligation of extreme emotional labor often takes years of psychotherapy and self-healing. Before you judge me or anyone else for bringing this burden onto ourselves, try to understand that developing this habit wasn’t our conscious decision—it was an act of self-preservation in challenging circumstances.

The signs of excessive emotional labor include burnout and mental health crises.

If you work a job that isn’t considered stressful or physically demanding, you may wonder why it gets so tiring sometimes.

I was confused as well. I have the job of my dreams, I set my own very reasonable hours, and I exclusively work with kind and smart people who respect my expertise. And yet I still find it tiring—not always, but more often than I think I should. Certain projects exhaust me more than others.

I’ve also noticed that my anxiety spikes and I get “nervous sweats” when I’m expending emotional labor, such as client meetings, writing challenging emails or text messages, or teaching a workshop.

Yet I can spend a whole day talking with a close friend, and still feel comfortable and relaxed. It’s not an introvert versus extrovert thing. It’s the high stakes of having to respond gracefully even when faced with uncomfortable situations.

How to conserve emotional energy

I don’t have a secret how to intentionally expend less emotional labor in any given situation. I’m often oblivious to it until it’s too late. But I’ve learned how to save energy by limiting situations where emotional labor is needed.

1. Operationalize your creative process

I’ve written about designing your creative process so you can serve your clients in the most effective and efficient way possible.

The more concretely you define the steps of your process, the less ambiguity there will be when you have to work or talk to clients. Ambiguity allows for opportunities to improvise and get into discussions that may be an unnecessary energy drain.

2. Write canned responses

If one client asks a question, another will come along eventually and ask the same thing. If you’ve come up with a tactful answer to an awkward client question, save it and use it every time!

Thinking about the perfect response requires more emotional labor than copying, pasting, and customizing it. Templates save both your time and your mental energy.

3. Reduce work hours

We’re expected to work fixed hours, but more often we work until we feel “done”.

My normal approach is to keep working while I have the energy, because I can’t predict when I’ll have a low energy day and I feel the pressure to make up for it. But as I’ve gotten more serious about my health, I started clocking out earlier if:

  • I’ve completed my work for the day, even if it’s way earlier than usual.
  • I worked longer hours the previous day and feel like I’ve reached my weekly quota of productivity.
  • I’ve had or plan to show up at an event this week (workshop, conference, consulting gig) and need extra recovery time.

During my off hours I try to take my mind away from work by listening to podcasts, doing chores, drawing, reading fiction, etc. No business books, no work-related talk—just the opposite.

Your clients don’t need to know that you’re not working. You’re simply “not available”.

4. Set communication boundaries

I wrote an entire article on setting appropriate communication boundaries with our clients and audience. In short, reducing the amount of time you’re available to communicate means reducing the amount of emotional labor.

I don’t read my work email in the evenings and on the weekends. I don’t use text messages for work communication. It’s a perfectly normal and reasonable boundary. I would not ask more of the professionals I hire.

If you don’t explicitly set boundaries (in your agreements, terms of service, or a conversation), you can still model boundaries by simply acting accordingly. Do not check email over the weekend, and respond on Monday morning. There, the client has learned that you don’t respond over the weekend, and won’t expect you to do it in the future. If they ask about it, you simply say:

“I don’t work over the weekend.”

Responding to messages is work. Turn off your notifications and don’t get sucked into work while you’re supposed to be living your personal life.

5. Break the ice

I feel more relaxed and less concerned with how my clients perceive me if we’ve shared an honest, vulnerable moment and it wasn’t awkward. Basically, we’ve entered into friendly territory, not “just business”. I’m not saying you have to become friends with all your clients, because that’s not always possible. I find that it’s important to be on the same wavelength with my clients in order for me to do my best work.

Some examples of ice-breaking moments may include:

  • Switching from formal to informal pronouns, titles, and names. (This depends on the language and culture.)
  • Sharing a personal story the other person relates to.
  • Dropping a curse word and nobody takes offense.
  • Asking a potent question that prompts serious thinking and expressing of personal values.

Getting closer to someone can relieve some emotional labor. But getting into a conflict-ridden relationship with someone creates more emotional labor! That’s why it’s crucial to…

6. Watch out for red flags

We all have that one difficult family member that can’t stand opposing opinions, so we “play nice” to avoid conflict. But if you feel that way about a client, you shouldn’t be working with them!

Learning to recognize high-conflict personalities takes experience. We all make mistakes and get involved with people we really shouldn’t have. But once you realize you’re dealing with a challenging personality, get out of that relationship as soon as possible. The money is not worth it. Remember: you’re expending valuable emotional labor that they’re not paying you for.

I know, you’ll probably feel guilty when you turn down a prospective client that’s displaying red flags. But a bit of guilt will save you from weeks or months of misery. These clients will wring you like a wet rag and leave you too exhausted to work on other creative projects.

People that act entitled in the beginning will not become any better with time. If anything, they’ll become more and more unhinged. (Clearly, I’m speaking from experience.)

If someone makes you even a little bit uncomfortable, that’s your intuition telling you very clearly that you should stay away from them.

7. Cut out draining interactions

If you’re a content creator or an active member of online communities and frequently get into debates that leave you drained, consider shutting down some of the communication channels, either temporarily or permanently.

I know it’s hard. I’ve done it many times when I felt like it’s doing me more harm than good. (Most recently I closed my Twitter account.) And I know that I’m creating the problem for myself because I can’t just ignore when people say something dumb, I have to get involved.

If I can’t control myself and look away, my only choice is to stop putting myself in situations where I’ll get worked up over stuff that has nothing to do with me personally. Usually other people in the debate will not change their minds, and I’ll waste all that precious energy for nothing.

The same is true for in-person groups. If there are communities or individuals that repeatedly leave you with a bad vibe, it may be best for you to leave.

You have to value your labor before anyone else can.

When you value your own emotional labor, you’re empowered to manage how much you’re willing to expend. You won’t allow people to pressure you into giving more than you want to.

Don’t let people live in your head rent-free.

Anyone who wants to get into my head must either deserve it by being a wonderful person, or pay for it. Squatters are not welcome.

My high capacity for emotional labor is what makes me a good designer. I feel my client relationships are more rewarding because of it. But at the end of day, I deserve to have some of that capacity left over for myself and my loved ones.

You deserve that too.

Thank you for watching, and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode of Nela’s Art Chat.


Some blog articles contain affiliate links to products on Amazon. I’ll get paid a few cents if you buy something using my link, and there’s no extra charge to you.

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