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The Mental Load and How it Affects Women Everywhere

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You may have heard of women shouldering the ‘mental load’ in terms of household chores but did you know it can also affect your work life?

Think about all the invisible work that’s not officially on your job description. The mental load is essentially unrecognized responsibilities that you take on because….well, if you don’t who will?

This could be anything from taking notes at meetings and organizing birthday cards & gifts, to formatting reports and keeping the shared kitchen tidy.

Women are seen to be the ‘best’ people for this extra work because they have this role at home or they volunteer for it. Once it’s something that you ‘do’ however, it can be incredibly difficult to stop doing it. Being responsible for remembering certain things can be exhausting.

It can start affecting your mental and physical health. For instance, if you’re sick you may feel you can’t take the day off because the office might fall apart if you’re not there. Likewise you may feel you can’t take a holiday because no one will pick up the slack when you’re away.

The Unrecognized Manager

It’s little wonder that many women consider themselves the CEO of their household. With all the remembering, planning, organizing, scheduling and negotiation that goes on, if it were a ‘real job’ it would be bringing in the big bucks.

working mom

But being a CEO of your household doesn’t come with a paycheck to match. It’s unpaid work to coordinate kids, pets, meals, shopping, and appointments on a daily basis to make sure everyone gets where they need to be, and is washed, fed and clothed.

In an ideal world the running of the household would be divided equally. But more often than not the mental load falls to women, as they’re deemed to be ‘best at’, ‘more suited’ or even ‘more interested’ in domestic chores than men.

Men are surprised when their partner gets snappy or stressed out, because they only had to ‘ask for help’. This article illustrates how asking for help doesn’t relieve women of their mental load because they’re still the designated manager that has to remember that things have to be done in the first place.

For many women, the mental load can also be something they struggle with at work. It’s easy to let scope creep happen on your job description. Before you know it you’re the one keeping the coffee pot full, booking meeting rooms, or organizing team outings.

So What’s the Answer?

While your invisible work may appear to keep the office running smoothly, it isn’t work that you can add to your CV. It’s not something that will help you get promoted. And it isn’t helping your productivity.

working women

Becoming more aware of your mental load both at home and at work is the first step. If you’re increasingly tired, grumpy and stressed out then take a look at why you’re feeling that way.  Ask yourself:

  • Am I taking on lots of extra chores and tasks that I don’t really want to do?
  • Do I feel resentful of my partner, boss, colleagues?
  • Do I feel like things will fall apart if I don’t do a certain chore or task?

It could be that you enjoy a particular chore or task. Some people love ironing, for example, but hate cooking. You might like taking meeting notes, but hate having to water the office plants.

By identifying exactly what you like doing and what you don’t, it gives you more leverage for the next step – lightening your mental load.

How to Lighten the Mental Load

Ultimately the goal is for you to become more productive, re-energized and less stressed at home and at work.

One approach is to simply stop doing the things you don’t want to do. This can have mixed results, as one woman found out. Another is to be more vocal about chores and tasks that you feel need to be shared in the household and at work.

working women

Setting up a roster for recurring tasks can help to build awareness and make the work visible. People may just not be aware that you do so much, or think that you like doing it.

It may take time to shift attitudes and create more of an equal footing, so you need to stay strong and not slip back into old habits! By shrinking your mental to-do list, and delegating some of the work you do to others, you’ll give yourself more time to focus on your own goals.

For further reading check out some more ways you can make space to think, create and thrive!


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Comments 6

  1. Thanks for a great reminder which came right after a SurveyMonkey I did where a list of chores was being presented:
    Are you responsible for
    – Groceries
    – Entertainment
    – Health Care
    – Personal Care
    – Fitness
    – Lawn and Garden
    – Finance
    – Bills
    – Child Care
    – Elder Care
    – Pet Care
    – Vehicle purchase
    – Vehicle maintenance
    – Travel planning
    – None of the above

    And I have to admit that I checked the last box. However I like to consider myself a pretty progressive man. I changed more than my share of diapers, did take care of the kids where they were little, do the laundry, garden, cook and clean the kitchen even when I am not the one who messed it up. It’s just that my wife is so much better at all these things partly because she has done it, partly because my approach to travel planning for example would rely more on serendipity than she cares for.

    It’s an eye opener for me but I also think that our society’s gender expectations and models still have a way to go. Time to get Tom Sawyer’s advice on how to paint the fence so it’s seen as a reward and not a chore.

  2. Hi Philippe! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts here. Our expectations are so gendered and we’ve all learned to internalize these responsibilities in one way shape or form. To a certain extent, a lot of us (women) enable our (usually male) partners by taking on the mental load because it’s easier to just do it as opposed to taking on the task of training our significant other (which can put added stress on the relationship, etc). As a result, we sometimes make it worse and the vicious cycle continues.

    But we do eventually hit a wall. It’s exhausting. This work gets taken for granted and often goes unseen, unrecognized.

    In my opinion a ‘progressive man’ can hardly be defined as someone who has changed his kids’ diapers, done some of the laundry or has shared some responsibility of cooking and cleaning. Progressive men engage in and support feminism even if it puts them in uncomfortable positions. Progressive men fight for equal pay on behalf of their female counterparts. Progressive men don’t shun or put off the invisible work (aka ‘women’s work’)–they just do it.

    Also to say your wife is so much better at these things–therefore should be the one to do it–is preposterous. I mean, who really cares how well the housework/scheduling/procurement of things is done…as long as it just gets done??

    You’re absolutely right: our society’s gender expectations and models have a long way to go. However, these changes will never happen unless we have the unwavering support of truly progressive men.

  3. Love these articles!. As a woman who has raised three children, taken care of a disabled husband and is running her own business, I hear all of the above comments. In this day and age where both partners are working full time there is absolutely no argument for assigning gender specific roles.
    Household chores should be equally divided . Children should be taught to do these tasks regardless of gender. Perhaps then there will be none of the “women are better at housework “ biases. Better still save the rancor and hire a cleaning service!.

  4. Agreed! Thank you so much for your comment, Angela 🙂 Yes–children should be taught from a young age to be responsible humans and make equal contributions, regardless of gender.

    And heck yes to hiring a cleaning service!! We’ve done that and we’ll NEVER go back 😉

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