Running a household doesn’t only involve scrubbing bathrooms, cooking meals and folding laundry. The act of organising, planning and remembering to do these tasks is an enormous job in itself.
The mental load is a concept that’s risen in prominence in recent years, and with good reason. The cognitive strain of keeping track of a never-ending to-do list is a gendered burden that continues to be lumped on women.
So, what are the impacts of the mental load on outcomes for women? And, most importantly, what practical steps can we take at home, at work and at a policy level to redress this gendered inequality?
What is the mental load?
The first step to rebalancing the mental load is to start talking about what it actually is.
Women are already responsible for the lion’s share of unpaid care work (with the latest survey by the ABS on the household impacts of COVID-19 revealing 34% of women spend 20 hours on unpaid care at home each week). But it’s not just the acts of caring, cleaning and cooking that are having a negative impact on women.
The often-invisible work of overseeing, delegating and managing these tasks means we’re also hit with the mental strain of making sure this work actually gets done, too. And that’s what the mental load is all about.
The mental load is a topic that’s been swept under the rug, until recently. Public dialogue has started to articulate and unpack the experience of juggling the demands of paid employment and caring for others at the expense of ourselves and our mental health.
You might have seen this 2017 comic strip by artist Emma Clit exploring women’s experiences of this invisible labour. Plus, it’s been the subject of numerous books such as Fair Play by Eve Rodsky and The Invisible Load by Dr Libby Weaver, all of which are starting to shine a spotlight on the very real and very devastating impacts of this cognitive labour on women.
Whether you call it invisible labour, a never-ending to-do list or the mental load, the toll on (most commonly women) is the same.
We already know that unpaid care work is deeply gendered and estimated to be worth roughly $650.1 billion (which is a massive 50.6% of GDP), and women make up 70% of primary unpaid care workers for children in Australia. Plus, the mental gymnastics of making sure these jobs are done depletes our energy, our capacity to care for ourselves and our overall well being.
Once we’ve exhausted our mental bandwidth, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to engage in leisure activities, unwind and carve out time for meaningful self-care (such as checking in on our finances, getting outdoors, and exercising). With that in mind, it’s no wonder one-fifth of women in a recent survey reported being clinically depressed or anxious.
But, the mental load doesn’t have to be a burden women carry alone. Let’s explore some of the practical ways we can work to redress this imbalance at both a personal and political level.
What are practical ways we can balance the mental load?
Before we dive in, it’s important to say that the burden of rebalancing shouldn’t fall squarely on the shoulders of women. There are meaningful and necessary changes required at a government and policy level to redress this unequal distribution of work which will help achieve more equal outcomes for all women.
However, we also want to empower everyone in our community to take practical action in their own lives. So, here are a few ideas to get you started.
In the home
- Start an open conversation with your partner: the first step to rebalancing the unequal impacts of the mental load is to call out all the invisible work we’re doing alone. By explaining the tasks you have on your plate and how they’re impacting your overall well being, you’ll be laying the foundations for a more equal distribution of work at home.
- Factor the mental load into your task management: when splitting up tasks between yourself, your partner and your family members, make sure to also factor in who is responsible for managing, planning and delegating those tasks. That way, everyone is held accountable for ensuring these jobs are done (rather than you taking responsibility for the task management of the entire household).
- Get comfortable with setting boundaries: in order to spark change, it’s important to be open to relinquishing control and letting other people in our household step up and help out. Once you’ve re-established new responsibilities, make sure you leave it to them to get the job done.
In the workplace
- Say no: setting clear expectations and boundaries around your time is key to ensuring you don’t overcommit or take on additional responsibilities when you don’t have the capacity to do so. Be firm and authoritative – they’ll always be someone else to step in and help out if you’re unable to.
- Share the load: establish rosters for additional tasks such as organising staff events and birthday celebrations in the office, rather than assuming certain individuals in the team will continue to do this unpaid work.
- Call it out: inequality thrives in silence. If you notice the same team members are being relied on to facilitate team building days or do coffee runs, draw attention to it and suggest ways this imbalance can be redressed.
At a policy-level
We know that unpaid care work and the mental load are gendered experiences that disproportionately impact women. So, here are a few key ways our government can take practical steps to enable a more equitable split of labour:
- Access to child care: initiatives such as Make It Free are campaigning for the government to enable families to access free childcare and make it possible for more women to return to paid employment in a meaningful way.
- Paid parental leave: by redefining who is considered primary and secondary carers (and ditching terms like ‘Dad and Partner Pay’) and offering longer periods of paid parental leave for both parents, we can avoid the unequal, gendered division of labour from the beginning of parenthood.
- More meaningful flexible work arrangements: giving employees (both men and women) the opportunity to design work days and schedules that factor in things like school pick-ups and caring responsibilities will enable both parents to take equal responsibility for caring and raising their families.
While there’s no silver bullet to rebalancing the mental load, the first practical step we can all take is to start talking about it. The sooner we start open and honest conversations with our partners, family, employers and government decision-makers, the sooner we’ll be able to put structures in place that will redress the gendered impacts of the mental load on women.