What is emotional work?

Note: This text is an excerpt from the zine “Who Cares - Wer sorgt sich hier um wen?” by Patriarchat Zerschmetterlinge (Instagram: @patriarchat_zerschmetterlinge).

[...] Origin of the term: The term was first used by Arlie Hochschild in 1983 in the book "The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling". Hochschild differentiated between "emotional labour", i.e. emotional wage labour, and "emotional work" in the unpaid sector, which we want to consider in this zine.

[...] Emotional wage labour [...] includes the expectation of employees in so-called "women's jobs" to be friendly in addition to their substantive work/service. And this being friendly basically means to bring up "artificial" emotions for the well-being of the customers. Affected by this emotional wage labour are e.g. sex workers, psychotherapists, flight attendants, people in nursing and service. In all of the above-mentioned departments, it is predominantly women who are employed to this day.

In distinction to this, in the zine emotional work stands for: 

  • Caring about interpersonal relationships.
  • Being aware of one's own and other people's emotions
  • Reaching out to others and addressing emotions
  • Caring for the well-being and functioning of relationships
  • The active effort we make to make relationships of all kinds work.


  • Asking how the person is doing 
  • Arranging meetings
  • Addressing problems
  • Keeping in touch/getting in touch

Inequitable distribution of emotional work

Emotional work is the foundation of any relationship, whether with acquaintances, friends, family, or oneself. This work must be done in order for there to be a functioning social togetherness. But as part of care and reproductive work, it is part of a binary gender image and the allocation of roles in heteronormative relationships. Emotional work must be distributed fairly! [...] In order to perform emotional work, it requires skills, which have to be learned like other basic competencies (e.g. speaking or walking). These skills include, for example, empathy or active listening. Every person has the disposition for these skills, regardless of gender. However, due to binary, patriarchal role concepts, young people are socialised differently. Accordingly, the abilities to perform emotional work are actively promoted in and predominantly demanded from female socialised persons. Female socialised children are expected to play with and "care" for dolls at an early age, while male socialised children are more likely to take on the role of adventurer and fight for their own success.

Learning care work is followed by a sense of obligation to do it, because not learning the necessary skills for emotional work creates a void that female socialised individuals try to fill. [...] "If you love a person, you take care of them glady, that's not work!". We do not want to deny that (emotional) caregiving can be a fulfilling activity. However, it is a fact that it can also be very exhausting and demanding, and the performance of care work requires capacities. These capacities are not always available, not in every situation. The prejudice that the sense of life of a person capable of bearing a child is the family and that the associated care work for husband and children brings fulfilment has long served as a justification for shifting reproductive work and the emotional work contained therein to female socialised persons. This is a perfidious tactic, because it not only makes emotional labour and work invisible, but also makes female socialised persons feel guilty when they respect their own capacities and set limits.

Additional Source
Emotional labour is a heavier burden for some of us | Leah Cowan | TEDxRoyalCentralSchool – YouTube