Emotional labor is the unpaid part of the job, the invisible work we do to keep those around us comfortable and happy. When embarking on a headship, no one talks to you about the emotional labor. No one recognizes the amount of time, energy and bandwidth that goes into it.
What does emotional labor look like? Or rather, what does is feel like? Our brains are like machines, they need food and rest to function at high capacity during actual work hours. And although we may be feeding our bodies plenty of fuel for our brains to run on, unmanaged emotional labor is more like an untamed animal that does not allow proper rest of the brain.
As heads of school are reading this, they are feeling the physical pain and pressure in their necks, shoulders and guts. Although emotional labor can cause worry and anxiety, those do not define it. Emotional labor is the overly thoughtful work our brains do. Constantly reminding ourselves to check on A-G, check in with H-P, and close a loop with Q-Z; sometimes truly having 26 things on our minds at once! It’s the mental checklist that never ends.
According to classical economics, there are four types of labor: unskilled, semi-skilled, skilled and professional. In thinking about emotional labor in the context of these textbook categories, a new head is probably, at worst, unskilled at managing emotional labor, at best semi-skilled. Maybe after a first contract term a head could be considered skilled at managing emotional labor. And it is only the seasoned heads that have become true professionals.
But isn’t that true about most things in a headship? Many new heads are unskilled at fundraising, and as the years go on, they become fundraising professionals. Why is support for a head to gain the skills at fundraising so readily available, but help to manage the emotional labor not only not available, but often not even recognized?
Even having a conversation about emotional labor becomes emotional labor!
We have been conditioned our whole lives to think one step ahead, to anticipate the needs of those around us, and to care about them deeply. All this labor is happening in our heads and hearts and taking both a psychological and physical toll on us. It is the only type of labor that goes largely unnoticed by those it benefits most. The direct recipients of the job we’re doing in the realm of emotional labor are often clueless about this labor.
Successful heads are concerned about how our tone and demeanor affects our faculty and staff. We labor strenuously over conversations to be had, and then continue to labor over the conversations long after they’re finished.
We worry about our students and their families dealing with family illness, emergencies and losses. We agonize over difficult conversations with parents about their children and have multiple conversations just to prepare.
The Role of Mentors
Our tumultuous feelings can be harnessed and channeled into a productive thought process through the mentoring relationship. A mentor provides a head with encouragement and support and gives useful feedback on behavior and decision making. A mentor can help guide the emotional laborer into becoming a strategic thinker, thereby making the emotional labor both valuable and productive.
Most importantly, by providing emotional support and guidance to a head, the mentor helps turn the burden of emotional labor into motivation to continue the rewarding and challenging work of the headship. The mentor-mentee relationship is most fruitful when the head can be fully vulnerable with, and open to the guidance and advice of, their mentor.
An unexpected benefit of my mentor relationship has been the cheerleading. Having a mentor who believes in you, literally cheers you on, and whose only interest is to see you succeed has been key to my ability to tackle some of the most difficult situations of my career. Much of our emotional labor is providing this very kind of support to our faculty and staff, yet for those heads who don’t have mentors, who is doing it for them?
The Role of Lay Leaders
Another important piece of support is a high functioning head of school support and evaluation committee. The members of the HOSSEC can and should own some of the emotional labor together with the head of school. Selecting the right members to serve on the HOSSEC has also been instrumental in sustaining me in the headship. My team of HOSSEC members allows me the space to articulate some of the emotional labor, and similar to the role of my mentor, they help shoulder some of it by understanding the challenges and concerns and formulating strategic actions for our community. Knowing that these committee members are fully supportive and receiving their honest feedback helps alleviate some of the emotional labor and overcome some of the loneliness of headship.
As I’m rounding out my second year as a head of school, I am grateful to my school’s lay leadership for supporting the coaching and mentoring I am receiving on a regular basis through the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) and for the formulation of a productive, high-functioning HOSSEC.
Having a mentor with regular meetings is like putting on our own oxygen masks before helping others—key to not only surviving but thriving in the headship.