Mental load takes its toll – here’s what to do about it

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  • The pandemic has highlighted the domestic division of labor.
  • COVID-19 has now also increased the mental load, which includes cognitive and emotional work.
  • Here, the experts suggest ways to reduce the mental load, including working as a family and making your struggles more visible to others.

The COVID pandemic has made the very private issue of the division of domestic labor – the way household chores and childcare are divided – a very public issue.

During the closures, the burden of housework and childcare increased significantly for both men and women in opposite sex and same sex couples both in Australia and somewhere else.

Overnight, homes became makeshift offices, daycares and schools, and it was mothers who largely took on these teaching and caring roles at the expense of their own. anxiety levels and sleep.

While the pandemic has exacerbated the physical demands of care – housework and childcare – it has also exacerbated another part of the job that keeps households and families running: the mental load.

What is the mental load?

Much has been written about mental load over the past two years, with many confusing mental load with housework – cleaning and cooking or looking after children – or planning childcare duties. But the mental load is so much more.

In our recently published to research, we define mental load as the combination of two types of work or work: cognitive work and emotional labor.

Mental load is more than just planning.

Mental load is more than just planning.

Image: Vitolda Klein / Unsplash

The cognitive aspect of mental load involves the Planning, Planning, and organization necessary to support the proper functioning of families. This type of work ranges from organizing a game date to planning a dinner party.

We argue that this cognitive work becomes a load or mental load when it has an emotional element, for example, when there is worry or stress associated with these tasks.

Some have described listing building as a mental load, but listing building isn’t always stressful or emotional, and most importantly, listing building has a limited beginning and end.

But, once cognitive tasks like making lists take on an emotional element – like worrying about whether Nana will like her gift, the anxiety about how parents will get along at holiday dinners, and the stress of filling in the stockings while finishing the job – then that becomes the mental load.

How does the mental load work?

We argue that the mental load operates in families and societies in three ways.

Mental load can be performed anywhere, anytime.

Mental load can be performed anywhere, anytime.

Image: Aviv Rachmadian / Unsplash

First it is invisible – this is the type of work that is done internally. Unlike household chores or babysitting, they are invisible and therefore difficult to recognize.

Second, the mental load is without border. Because it is invisible, it can be performed anywhere or anytime.

American sociologist Arlie Hochschild called post-work women’s domestic work “second shift“but the mental load does not have a lag – it can be done before, during and after work or even during the time that should be spent asleep.

One in four people will suffer from mental illness in their lifetime, costing the global economy an estimated $ 6 trillion by 2030.

Poor mental health is the leading cause of disability and poor life in young people aged 10 to 24, contributing up to 45% of the overall disease burden in this age group. Yet globally, young people have the worst access to mental health care for young people in their lifetimes and in all stages of illness (especially during the early stages).

In response, the Forum launched a series of global dialogues to discuss ideas, tools and architecture in which public and private stakeholders can build an ecosystem for health promotion and mental illness management.


One of the top current priorities is to support global efforts for mental health outcomes – promoting key recommendations to meet global mental health targets, such as the WHO Knowledge-Action Portal and the Global Mental Health Countdown

Learn more about our platform’s work to shape the future of health and healthcare and contact us to get involved.

And finally, the mental load is durable, which means it never ends. Unlike household chores like cooking or cleaning, thinking and caring for family members never stops which is why the mental load can be so heavy and Nana always reminds you to take a jacket.

How to reduce mental burdens in 2022 and beyond?

There are a number of things that individuals and society can do to reduce the mental strain.

1) Make the mental load more visible by quantifying it

We do not have a robust, standardized and nationally representative measure of mental workload. This means that unlike housework and childcare, we have no idea how much and what the mental burden is on Australians.

Recent reports on housework show that women do 21 hours more unpaid work than men. They may also spend most of the day thinking, planning, and worrying about their families.

Yet we have no measure of this work and, more importantly, we also do not know how men handle the mental load.

Quantifying and capturing how much time we spend on the mental load and how it is shared between couples will help lay the groundwork for change.

2) Recognize the tribute of women

The pandemic has left workers exhausted, stressed and overwhelmed by the intensity of balancing work, home schooling and full-time care demands while being isolated at home.

It’s no wonder the pandemic has hit unemployed mothers.

a graphic showing the mental impact of the pandemic on men and women

The mental impact of COVID-19 on women compared to men.

Image: KFF

Mothers are exhausted not only by the physical demands of work and family, but also by the cognitive work of holding everything together at work while fearing to torpedo the educational future of children by keeping them at home, alone and bonded. to screens.

Mental load, as a relentless internal tormentor, is a drain on well-being with serious consequences for economic productivity and fatigue.

Mental load is a national health emergency and should be treated seriously by workplaces and governments.

Mental load affects women's health and productivity

Mental load affects the health and productivity of women.

Image: Annie Spratt / Unsplash

3) Help families to better reconcile work and family demands

Organizations and governments need to do a better job of helping families combine work and family responsibilities. Mental load overloads women (and some men) especially at work when they think about and worry about the needs of their children.

Workplaces need to improve support for families to reduce the mental burden. This can mean more remote work or concrete programs to support the mental load of workers. It is also likely to improve the productivity of workers.

At the same time, governments need to provide better care infrastructure to support families, for example more universal and affordable child care, supports for children’s transition to and from school, and better care. to the elderly. This will reduce workers’ worries about the experiences of their loved ones while in paid work.

Ultimately, mental burden is a mental health issue and businesses and governments should treat it as such. This will relieve families, and mothers in particular, of the mental burden alone.


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