Invisible Labor in the Workplace
Who took notes at your last meeting? Who oversees agendas? Who called the restaurant for the catered lunch or event your team had last?
It’s hard for employees to pinpoint who exactly gets these jobs done, but they are tasks someone must do to keep work running smoothly. This is called “invisible labor.” It often falls to women, and it has a decidedly negative impact on mental health.
Learn more about what invisible labor looks like and why it’s important to distribute work as evenly as possible.
What Is Invisible Labor?
The term “invisible labor” describes everyday tasks or chores that people tend to not recognize as work. Examples of invisible labor in the home include jobs like doing laundry, going grocery shopping, or scheduling appointments.
Often, these to-do’s fall on women’s’ shoulders: A report from the United Nations indicated that women complete three out of every four hours of invisible labor.
Invisible labor tends to go unnoticed, unrecognized, and unpaid. The sociologist who first coined this term in 1987 explained that invisible labor is “devalued in both status and validation.” This creates a mental load on the person who is doing the work.
The Impact of Invisible Labor
At its core, invisible labor is simply not fair. In fact, psychologists have discovered that invisible labor has a negative impact on mental health — causing exhaustion, stress, and resentment.
Nobody wants to do extra work they don’t get thanked for. If your employees are shouldering invisible labor, they may be more likely to become disillusioned with their experience at their job.
What’s more, women can even be shunned when they don’t automatically perform invisible labor. Women might be seen as less likable, get worse performance evaluations, or receive less recommendations for promotions if they don’t do the invisible labor they are often expected to do.
Examples of Invisible Labor in the Workplace
Plenty of invisible labor takes place in the workplace, not just at home. And emotional labor plays into this dynamic, too — a term that refers to maintaining relationships and managing emotions as part of your job.
Examples of invisible labor in the workplace might include:
- Organizing meals for coworkers who may need them
- Ordering supplies, tidying up the office or refilling snacks
- Organizing office parties or events, even if online
- Mentoring new or younger employees without it being part of their role
- Filling in for someone
- Taking notes at meetings and sending them out afterward
- Serving on a committee
- Getting birthday cards, holiday cards, baby shower details together for coworkers
As with invisible labor in the home, women (particularly women of color, women who are disabled, and women who are part of the LGBTQ+ community) tend to shoulder the responsibility for workplace activities that promote company culture and employee engagement.
A study conducted by Harvard Business Review showed that women in a mixed-sex group received 44% more requests to volunteer for non-promotable tasks than men. Women were more likely to accept these requests, too — possibly because they’ve been conditioned to believe this work should automatically fall to them.
You can recognize invisible labor by making a comprehensive list of the tasks that help keep your office and team running.
Three Ways to Distribute Labor More Evenly
Good news: There are steps you can take to distribute office tasks more evenly. Here are a few ideas.
- Assign tasks instead of asking for volunteers.Since women are more likely to volunteer for invisible labor, consider assigning tasks instead, making a schedule to help you switch the jobs around to all different employees.
- Change your company culture.Start conversations about the idea of invisible labor, and why equitable distribution of non-promotable tasks is so important. Work to change the environment by intentionally giving people more high-profile tasks and explaining why less visible tasks should be spread around and are still valuable.
- Re-evaluate.After six months, go back through your list of tasks that are considered invisible labor. Who is performing each one now? Are the jobs divided more evenly? If not, revisit the new strategies you’ve been using to make sure they’re working.
It can be hard to unlearn habits but recognizing invisible labor in the workplace is essential to prevent burnout and help everybody advance their careers.