It's time to share the mental load

August 2018

Mental load—the planning, checking, list-making, remembering and all the other work you do in your head to manage your life. It often never ends and is invisible—while having a real economic effect on productivity.

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Of course, all households look different. Not everyone is partnered, or has children and not all families have both parents working. However, women do tend to do more unpaid domestic work than men.

According to data from the 2016 Census, the typical Australian woman spends between five and 14 hours a week doing unpaid domestic housework. For the typical man, it’s less than five hours per week.

And while the physical nature of housework is one thing, often even more fatiguing is the mental juggle—aka the mental load—that comes with it all.

The hours add up

Dr. Leah Ruppanner, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Melbourne, wrote about the trade-offs and the economic toll people make on their time, particularly when women drop out of the workforce to look after children.

“Women consistently trade time in employment for greater time in domestic work, even when their resources are on par with men,” Dr. Ruppanner writes.

If you’re using your mental energy thinking about unpaid work, then one of the things you’re not thinking about is actual paid work, and this can have long-term economic consequences.

Whilst assuming the role of ‘house manager’ can wield some power, it means that women (generally) are absolving other members of the household of this exhausting work—sometimes at the expense of their employment, sleep, leisure and health.

So what can we do about it?

Rather than continuing to feel overwhelmed by all the thinking, planning and remembering that comes with the mental load, there are some things that can be done to manage it.

Divide and conquer; since much of the mental load is invisible, let your significant other in on all the things they may not see. For example, delegate tasks like organising care for children during school holidays or checking pets’ immunisations are up-to-date. Allocate 1-2 nights a week where you don’t have to worry about ‘what’s for dinner?’

Let yourself step back. Sometimes the only way the people around you will learn to take on more responsibility is by learning directly. Let someone else develop their skills—whether they’re your children, partner, or colleagues. This also allows you to take a break to identify, reduce and redistribute the mental load.

Stop comparing and judging. Some of the pressure can come from seeing how others seemingly “do it all”. So stop judging—this includes your friends, your family and yourself.