Understanding the Emotional Labor of Public Health Equity Work: a Mixed Methods Study

Chad Abresch, Carol Gilbert, Marilyn Johnson, Bibhusha Karki, Kiara Lyons, Karly Meyer, Melissa Tibbits, Drissa Toure

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Background: Rectifying historic race-based health inequities depends on a resilient public health workforce to implement change and dismantle systemic racism in varied organizations and community contexts. Yet, public health equity workers may be vulnerable to job burnout because personal investment in the continual struggle against inequality exacts an emotional toll. Our study sought to quantify the presence of emotional labor in public health equity work and better understand its dimensions. Methods: We conducted a mixed methods study of public health equity workers focused on maternal and child health in the USA. Participants completed a survey on the emotional demands of their public health equity work. A subset of survey respondents was interviewed to gain a better understanding of the emotional toll and support received to cope. Results: Public health equity work was found to involve high levels of emotional labor (M = 5.61, range = 1–7). A positive association was noted between personal efficacy (i.e., belief in one’s ability to do equity work well) and increased job satisfaction. However, burnout increased when equity workers did not receive adequate support for their emotional labor. Qualitative analysis revealed eight themes depicting the emotional burden, benefits and drawbacks, and coping strategies of public health equity work. Conclusions: Public health equity workers report high degrees of emotional labor and inadequate workplace support to cope with the demands. In our study, workplace support was associated with higher job satisfaction and lower burnout. Research is urgently needed to develop and scale an effective model to support public health equity workers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1047-1057
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 2023


  • Burnout
  • Emotional labor
  • Equity
  • Job satisfaction
  • Public health
  • Workforce development

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Anthropology
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Health Policy
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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