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The Unseen Tax Employees Pay — What We All Need to Know About Invisible Labour

Additional unpaid work that marginalized communities take on the most

By Rumeet Billan

How would your perspective change if you were able to go behind the scenes of someone’s life? To see the hours your colleague put in to research for their presentation last week, or the amount of time your partner dedicated to cleaning your home so you would have an uncluttered space to come back to after work. Would your opinion of them be different? Would how you interact with them change?

The truth is, there is unseen labour in all that we do, in every aspect and facet of our lives. The next time you pick up a fruit or vegetable at the grocery store, take a moment to think about how many hands it has passed through in order to make it in your cart. Would we be more grateful if we knew all of the backstories, the unseen edits that don’t make the final cut?

Invisible labour is a term that was coined by sociologist Arlene Daniels in 1987, referring to unpaid work that goes unnoticed, and as a result, is unregulated. According to its sociological definition, unpaid work is often carried on the backs of marginalized communities, including women and people of colour. In 1989, sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term “second shift” to describe the housework employed women had to come home to after a long day at work. But, this second shift goes far beyond housework — it bleeds into office work as well. 

Often, people of colour end up taking on the work of free diversity and inclusion initiatives by proxy of simply existing. Educating and explaining cultural differences to colleagues, navigating being stereotyped or tokenized, and experiencing microaggressions are all examples of unpaid labour and the emotional tax marginalized communities are almost expected to carry out. This invisible workload can lead to detrimental consequences, including burnout, depression, anxiety, and heightened feelings of resentment.

The truth is, the illusive “second shift” impacts all of us, even those of us who are not taxed with carrying out the additional work. According to a study conducted by the United Nations, women take on three of every four hours of unpaid labour. Further, unequal division of unpaid work can reduce earnings and economic independence. According to the International Monetary Fund, the economic empowerment and independence of women actually grows economies while simultaneously reducing income inequality and strengthening economic diversification. The same can be assumed for other minority groups, who are also commonly taxed with unpaid labor.

The first step towards creating solutions is making unpaid labour visible. It’s identifying and taking stock of the invisible labour that employees accomplish in a day’s work. Understanding what unseen labour looks like — and what it actually is — can help us to begin to conceptualize how we can support and accommodate these additional tasks.

In order to acknowledge unseen labour in the workplace, engage in a dialogue and have a conversation with employees; ask what can be done to alleviate some of the weight of this work. Progress might be made through allocating more time for specific  tasks, recognizing and appreciating the unnoticed work that comes with specific projects, or offloading certain assignments to employees who have more familiarity with them. When the lines of communication are kept open, you can better determine what the appropriate solution needs to be.

Whatever course of action you choose to take, drawing awareness to the unseen weight your staff carries will help create understanding. Taking action to support staff will help build a stronger, more equitable workplace where employees feel seen and heard.

Rumeet Billan

Rumeet Billan

Dr. Rumeet Billan is an award-winning, internationally recognized entrepreneur, learning architect, speaker, author and humanitarian. Rumeet is the CEO and owner of Women of Influence+, and completed her PhD at the University of Toronto. She has led groundbreaking research and has designed and facilitated programs, courses, and training sessions across industries and sectors. Learn more at