The Unseen Dynamics of Power

How Emotional Labor and Mental Load Shape Leadership and Life

What you will learn:

  • Emotional work and mental load are not the same.

  • Both of these relationship dynamics occur in the home and at work.

  • If you want your (romantic/professional) partnership to work, you need to understand and work through relationship dynamics like these.

  • The first step is to take full responsibility of your part in the relationship. You cannot change your partner.

⏲️ Reading time: 7 minutes

I used to observe the mental load debate from a safe distance. 

Then, Jessie and I became parents. 

Our sense of responsibility grew. But, our time and energy took a hit. And, our task list exploded. Mental load became palpable for me. 

Right around that time, I worked with the founder of a London-based software company. She felt frustrated. Her co-founder was inattentive. She felt like the entrepreneurial responsibility was hers alone. Through several individual and team coaching sessions, we realigned the partnership to be more effective and in tune with each other. It made me realize how important these relationship dynamics are in work partnerships. 

And it inspired me to look deeper.

The Gap In Understanding

I was disappointed to learn that most advice - books, podcasts, and blog posts- addressed the cognitive dimension of mental load. They saw mental load as a productivity problem. They suggested task lists, sharing calendars, role descriptions, and planning meetings as a remedy. They rarely addressed the emotional question that is the real foundation of all the household chore squabbles. 

I don't want to dismiss the importance of organization. It's key for alignment and productivity in the household and at work.

But the real question underneath the mental load discussion is “Do you care about me, about us?”.

Your sustained absence—failing to do your part in the partnership—will make your partner wonder, "Are they still committed to our relationship and the family/company we built? I certainly can’t feel his/her presence and that my priorities are important to him/her.”

This triggers fear of loss. 

It’s how mental load discussions become so surprisingly and overwhelmingly violent.

I was confused. How could the debate be so simplistic, while the problem is so pressing to co-founders and marriages alike?

In my research about mental load, I consumed both German and English-language content. I read several books, listened to podcasts, and reviewed some scientific papers. I found the source of my confusion: depending on the language, the content would focus on different concepts.

While the German-language debate centers around the concept of “mental load”, most English-language research and publications refer to this relationship dynamic as “emotional labor”. I learned two things:

  1. The concept of “mental load” in the German-language debate describes mostly the productivity aspect. The emotional dimension falls largely by the wayside.

  2. The concept of “emotional labor” in the US/UK dialogue describes just the emotional dimension while the productivity issue is not part of the 

Photo by Mitch on Unsplash

Emotional Labor is NOT Mental Load

OK, definitions:

Emotional labor means managing the emotional climate of a relationship. 

  • Your partner is throwing a rage fit? You cave and get out of the way.

  • You have something important to say but you worry it’s hurting someone’s feelings? You keep quiet.

Emotional labor is when you find yourself in a relationship dynamic where you’re always careful to keep everyone happy. Not only are you managing your own emotions, but those of everyone around you.

We all have different abilities to regulate our emotions. That’s human. People who stay even-keeled under stress also tend to be less excited in good times. Read: they may be a bit boring. I am a bit like that (unless you put me on stage and give me a guitar). 

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term "emotional labor" in 1983. She did so in her study on the experiences of flight attendants. She detailed the study in her book "The Managed Heart." Hochschild's research showed how flight attendants are trained to manage their emotions as part of their job. They often need to project warmth and friendliness, regardless of their personal feelings.

Mental load, on the other hand, is treated as “just” the cognitive burden of keeping track of too many tasks in your company or household. I am writing this fully aware that the official definition and also includes the emotional and psychological stress of them. 

Mental load feels like you are managing an employee instead of co-creating with a fully co-responsible partner. This touches on terminal responsibility, which I’ve explained here.

I wish I could offer an iconic origin story, but the concept of mental load has simply evolved. It emerged from broader discussions about cognitive load in psychology. Over time, it was applied to everyday contexts, particularly to domestic work and family life. 

In my last essay on the topic, I stated, "Mental load represents a power dynamic that remains unresolved, especially within the home.” This remains true for both emotional labor and mental load. Cultural norms worsen this imbalance. They do so by limiting open talks about labor division. This can lead to assumptions and expectations based on outdated standards.

And make no mistake: it's still women who are at the receiving end of this power imbalance.

Real-Life Examples

Let’s look at real-life examples of emotional labor and mental load in personal and professional settings:

  • Emotional labor at home: Imagine a typical evening where your partner comes home stressed and vents their frustration through a sudden outburst, perhaps slamming doors or speaking in a raised voice. These outbursts aren't directed at you, but they disrupt the peace. Each time, you find yourself swallowing your own feelings to soothe and calm the atmosphere, perhaps changing the subject or gently suggesting ways to unwind. You do this almost automatically, because you fear that addressing the real issue might escalate into a conflict you're not prepared to handle.

  • Emotional labor at work: Picture a scene in your startup’s office, where the stress of upcoming product launches and investor meetings is palpable. Your business partner tries to lighten the mood, insisting everyone focus on 'positive vibes' despite the mounting issues. You, on the other hand, have occasional outbursts in meetings or on the company Slack channel. This often happens because, as the “visionary” founder, you’re frustrated when your sky-high expectations clash with reality.

  • Mental load at work: Your product launch event falls short of expectations. Your co-founder says, "I prepared everything for the launch event, but it was not successful." His response indicates a focus on task completion rather than company success.

    You then probe further to show a broader view. "Did you update the invite list with the new target persona we made six weeks ago?" "Did you send a follow-up to upsell them?" Each "No" from your co-founder shows a lack of engagement with the entrepreneurial responsibility.

    This exchange shows you carrying the mental load of the company's holistic needs. You are urging your co-founder to shift from doing tasks to thinking holistically. To think like a partner, not like an employee.

  • Mental load at home: Who ends up buying toilet paper even though it was not on the shopping list? Who does not only switch off the alarm of the washing machine but actually folds and cleans up the laundry? Who writes not only the first three Christmas greeting cards but those remaining 17?

I forgot to mention: I am no saint myself! 

My wife Jessie takes a larger share of the mental load. She is currently on parental leave and spends more time at home, but that’s just a part of the reason. On the other hand, I take the lion's share of the emotional labor. That’s due to my conflict-avoidant pattern. At work, as a solopreneur with a small team, I take most of the company-level mental load. My team often has to balance my excitement for new opportunities. This is emotional work.

My point is this: Recognizing mental load and emotional labor is essential in maintaining a healthy relationship. Your relationship dynamic will NEVER be perfectly equal, nor will it be stable over time. It SHOULD, however, be a conscious dynamic for everyone and not extreme on either side of the scale. It should find a mid-term, sustainable, and fair equilibrium.

You Co-Create Your Relationships

Disclaimer: What I am about to say applies to any adult, mature, non-abusive relationship where both partners are mentally healthy.

As I reflect on my own journey, both as a partner to Jessie and as a coach working with founders, the themes of emotional labor and mental load resonate deeply. They affect both our homes and workplaces. From feeling the tension when tasks at home pile up unbalanced, to seeing a founder struggle because she feels alone in carrying her company, these moments drive home the need to really get this right.

You are co-creating your relationship. You bear shared responsibility for every relationship pattern. This is true even if you see yourself as the "victim" at times.

So the point I am really trying to make is the following: 

It is in your hands.

Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash

Here are some book recommendations for further reading:

  • Hochschild, A. R. (1983). The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. University of California Press.

  • Hartley, G. (2017). Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward. HarperOne.

  • Rodsky, E. (2019). Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live). G.P. Putnam's Sons.

  • Hackman, R. (2023). Emotional Labor: The Invisible Work Shaping Our Lives and How to Claim Our Power.

  • Hochschild, A. R., & Machung, A. (1989

How I can help you

1:1 Coaching: Over the last five years, I’ve helped 150+ entrepreneurs & investors navigate complex life and business challenges. Reach out to learn more.

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