Recently I was listening to an episode of the Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast about emotional labour. Being a woman and having spent many years in community/service/support roles, it’s something I’m well familiar with, along with its costs and its value (or lack thereof).

My company is also going through the hiring process for a support position right now, which I’m closely involved with, so it got me thinking a lot about emotional labour in the workplace, and more specifically in the tech sphere.

I’ve worked on writing up job postings a number of times, but this time around was the first time it occurred to me that when hiring for some positions, you’re crafting an ad that’s as much about expectations for the new hire’s emotional labour as their physical or mental labour.

For example, I can’t recall ever hearing about a developer job posting emphasizing that the candidate should like people or be super patient and empathetic. But in a customer support role, providing people with a positive overall experience is as important as fixing their account or technical problem.

It’s an expectation that’s deeply ingrained in a lot of roles, within the tech industry and outside of it. In North America, especially, we have a very high expectation of emotional labour on the part of people in service roles. This ranges to everything from tech support to retail to sex work.

Service with a smile … The customer is always right … Thing is, while we assign high expectations to the work, we don’t assign value to the work. The kinds of roles I’ve mentioned, and others requiring regular emotional labour, are not the highest paid in an organization. Often within companies they’re among the lowest paid, even frequently outsourced for even greater cost savings.

Yet these folks are the front line for people’s experiences with your organization. They interact with strangers and fix issues and answer questions and take abuse and create an impression of your company, over and over, every day. But companies generally don’t consider that physical/mental labour to be worth that much, let alone the smiling part.

And yet, think of how a crappy experience at your local coffee shop or sitting on hold and trying to get a transaction refunded can mess with your mood all day. You’re at the mercy of someone who honestly isn’t paid enough to care.

Emotional labour in the work world, as in many homes, is still a burden more frequently and heavily borne by women. Think of those “soft skills” departments in companies: marketing, communications, HR, support. Does your brain conjure up mental images of men? Mine doesn’t.

What do those roles and departments do? They figure out how to talk to people, how to get them to become or remain customers. They learn what people want and how to fix their problems. They cheer them up and increase net promoter scores. They take care of people. All of this is centered around emotional labour.

But that’s not all. In your office, who arranges birthday cards or cakes and orders the lunches (accounting for who’s vegan, gluten-free, etc.)? Is that person a woman? It has been at every company I’ve worked at.

It’s an expectation of emotional labour that doesn’t fall far from the expectation that the woman in the room will take the meeting notes and such, too ...

Is that person who expends all that emotional labour keeping the office running smoothly and socially the highest paid person at the company? Nope. Do they get paid any extra or get a bonus for taking on thankless administrivia? Of course not.

Not only do we not remunerate people for this labour – and rest assured, it is labour – we don’t take care of these people well while they’re doing the work or afterward, either.

Aside from crappy pay, chaotic workspaces, unstimulating work, ungrateful coworkers, and management that doesn’t have your back, a big reason that there’s often high turnover in such roles (think: call centres) is burnout.

And that doesn’t even get into the worst of the emotional labour we ask of people in tech. There are the folks whose job it is to view and vet online content from social platforms and determine if it violates “community standards” and “terms and conditions.” What it often really amounts to is contracting out trauma.

Once again, the people who do this kind of work are often contractors, so they don’t tend to get insurance benefits to help them deal with what they’re experiencing. (Supposedly this is gradually changing.) We have software that could help with the work they do – police forces use it – and yet we ask people to subject themselves to the worst of humanity, day in and day out, without protections or filters.

But we only expect the work; we don’t value it.

People can’t be expected to give 110% to any kind of labour, day in and day out, especially emotional labour, without burning out. We’re just not designed that way. Even the people whose personalities steer them to choose these interactive helper jobs.

Let’s not forget that once you’re burned out, it makes it harder for you to recover, get hired again, and do well at your next job, too. The damage can be lingering. And tech’s “crushing it” startup culture hardly helps.

Our society has some warped priorities. Why are the people working on curing cancer worth a gazillion times less than professional athletes? Why do CEOs make orders of magnitude more money than the people who actually acquire, retain, and charm the customers who are paying the executives’ salaries?

There are good reasons that folks who have worked support and service jobs say everyone should do it for a time. It makes us better coworkers, better employees, and better customers.

Shouldn’t that be worth something?

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at