Should you charge for emotional labor?

Feb 2, 2016

Emotional labor – and the toll it takes on human beings – is often undervalued in contemporary culture. This is especially true because women and disenfranchised people traditionally tend to work in fields that exact a high emotional cost… and their work is automatically undervalued.

Childcare is an excellent example of emotional labor which is often undercompensated; while it can have great rewards, it is emotionally taxing, demanding work that requires an enormous amount of patience, fortitude, and energy (just ask anybody who has spent the afternoon with a 2 year-old). This kind of focused nurturing is often underpaid and underappreciated by society, and that attitude is endemic – affecting everything from salary to overall career path.

Don’t add to this cultural epidemic.

Factor in the cost of emotional labor to your freelancing work.

Start by respecting your own emotional life. When determining the fundamentals of your freelance business – hours of operation, workspace, workflow, pricing – include emotional labor as one of your considerations.

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Odds are you already do some of this naturally; you probably choose to work that makes you happy or fulfilled. But being considerate of your emotional labor can help you make harder decisions – like when and how to work, when to take breaks, and what boundaries to set with clients.

When taking on projects, make a conscious effort not only to consider the concrete, quantifiable effort involved, but also the emotional toll exacted. Is the work likely to fulfill you, inspire you, challenge you, engage you – or will it enervate and upset you? Will you be working with flexible, friendly collaborators, or short-tempered, abrasive people? Sometimes a difficult job is absolutely worth the strain… but make sure you respect your emotional life. It’s the only one you’ve got!

If you find that you get stressed out when working past 6 PM, that’s totally legitimate! You needn’t regard that emotional response as an obstacle to overcome. Instead, listen to yourself and structure your workday accordingly. If you find it taxing to work on weekends, factor in that emotional cost to any work you accept – if the client NEEDS a particular project between Friday and Monday, they’re going to have to pay you enough to endure the discomfort.

Factoring in emotional labor can be especially helpful when determining pricing. A few years ago, after working with a particularly persnickety client, I started instituting a Headache Tax. If I felt that a client was going to be particularly demanding or needy or, um, annoying, I raised my rates enough to cover any headaches.

In my irritation, I thought that clients would balk at the increased price (and I would thus be spared the whole ordeal); to my surprise, the annoying clients paid the higher rates without complaint. The increased rate really helped me cultivate patience and tolerance, and the client was none-the-wiser. In essence, I had quantified my own emotional labor.

Once you’ve begun integrating a respect for emotional labor into your professional life, expand your focus. You’ll be amazed by all the undervalued emotional work you see around you, every day. Respect and openly appreciate the caretakers, supporters, nurturers, and patient listeners in your life.

Don’t let people dismiss givers and forbearers as weak or ineffectual; stand up for people who do hard work of all kinds, even if it’s not considered conventionally impressive. If you’re in a position to hire somebody else, make sure you factor in emotional cost when determining his/her pay scale, benefits, and work environment.

Don’t be part of the epidemic. Conduct your freelancing business in a way that respects emotional cost, as well as physical and intellectual effort… you’ll be happier for it.

Kate Shea lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.

Kate Shea

Kate Shea lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily.