We are all familiar with the concept of labor – you do a job, you get paid for it. Unfortunately, it’s not always that straightforward – sometimes labor can go unrecognized.
Back in 1987 sociologist Arlene Daniels coined the term “invisible labor”, and since then we have become increasingly aware of its various forms and ramifications. In some industries workers spend up to 33% of their daily work time doing invisible labor.
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What is invisible labor?
This kind of labor is not necessarily invisible in a literal sense – it just means it’s undervalued, underappreciated and not considered equal to explicitly productive labor. Any activity connected with work but not recognized as such can be considered an invisible workload.
Let’s consider some examples.
Suppose that in addition to your usual responsibilities you have to frequently cover for your colleague due to their absence. You started doing it as a one-off friendly gesture but it has now become a de-facto part of your job. However, no one recognizes this since they are not familiar with the intricacies of your role. The management only cares about the results, which you manage to deliver despite mounting exhaustion and exasperation.
Or consider an office where junior employees are expected to serve hot drinks to senior staff and take care of meeting minutes. At first glance, this might seem innocuous but it’s in fact a form of invisible workload – consider how much time it takes up yearly in such a scenario – and it’s unlikely that these junior employees signed up to moonlight as waiters and transcribers in the first place.
In short, invisible labor is when you do work that’s neither recognized, nor renumerated, but still expected of you. The prevalence of such a practice can have long-lasting effects not only on the employees but the company, too. So, let’s take a look at why invisible labor is bad news for everyone and what to do about it.
Why invisible labor is bad news for everyone
Imagine two scenarios. In the first one, you go above and beyond your usual responsibilities at work and perform a series of time-consuming and difficult tasks. You receive praise from your manager and colleagues. At the end of the quarter you receive a bonus and you are told you will be considered for a promotion. You feel your hard work has paid off.
In the second scenario, your efforts are identical but they do not elicit any response. No one seems to notice that you have gone the extra mile. You know that you have done well but it is as if you were invisible.
Ask yourself – if you were involved in the second scenario, how would you feel about your future with that particular company? There is a good chance you would feel discouraged to do anything above the bare minimum ever again – quiet quitting might appear as an alluring strategy. Perhaps it constitutes the tipping point and it’s time to look for other opportunities where your efforts can be properly recognized.
A good company should be mindful of its workforce’s well-being. Ideally, an employer should be proactive in identifying any potential instances of invisible labor – for example, by providing realistic workload management. In light of the Great Resignation, employers are forced to be increasingly competitive in order to maintain and attract talent. Given a choice, most people will prefer to work for a company that recognizes and awards their commitment.
At the end of the day, nobody wants to deal with an invisible workload. If a company has endemic issues in this area, hard-working and underappreciated people will likely seek opportunities elsewhere, and the company in question will lose valuable talent.
Clearly, invisible labor is a “lose-lose” kind of situation – unpleasant and demoralizing for employees and, in the long term, a liability to companies where it’s present.
How to identify and discourage invisible workload
Ideally, an employer should strive to identify all forms of invisible workload so they can be disposed of – either recognized and compensated as proper labor or eliminated entirely. In order to do that, there are a few things you should keep in mind.
Employers: foster an open environment
First, keep an open mind – it’s time to ditch the common sense understanding of what constitutes labor. You might find instances of invisible labor in the most unexpected places – it’s often hard to identify.
This brings us to the second point – communication. Ask your employees or people you supervise how they feel about their workload, work-life balance, and workplace conditions. Inquire how they feel about their work recognition and encourage them to voice any concerns.
Pro tip: use time-tracking solutions such as DeskTime to gain data-based insights into where your, and your employees’, time goes.
Employees: fight for your rights
It’s also the employee’s responsibility to not tolerate invisible labor. Sometimes people accept adverse work conditions as a matter of fact. Perhaps they feel they can cope with it, maybe they are afraid to voice any dissent or don’t feel too confident about their chances with another employer.
In any case, a passive attitude is hardly helpful. We are entitled to recognition of our work. Any form of mental or physical labor is a precious resource, which shouldn’t be given away for free. If you think your work is not recognized, start documenting any such instances – then you will have evidence and much better leverage in any potential discussions with your employer down the road.
Invisible labor – only the tip of the iceberg?
Let’s say you have identified invisible labor in your workplace. What next? It’s not as easy as just saying let’s be done with it. People perform invisible labor because they feel compelled to do it – either implicitly or explicitly.
It might be an indication of a deeper problem with your workplace culture. Perhaps the workload is too high or unevenly distributed. Maybe your workplace has adopted some questionable unwritten rules or practices. In any case, it’s a question of uncovering root causes, which have made invisible work present in the first place – and dealing with those causes in a united and productive fashion.
The case against invisible labor is simple and intuitive. Labor in the context of paid employment is not a gift or an act of charity – it should be recognized and adequately compensated.
A fair workplace is a boon to both parties – employees will feel valued and motivated, and the company will reap all the benefits of a loyal and talented workforce. As the term suggests, invisible labor can be hard to identify but that shouldn’t discourage a dedicated employer or manager.
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