The hidden mental load: How the burden of invisible labour is taking its toll

19 December 2022 - 6 min read

Wash clothes, clean bathrooms, wash the car, remember to buy a birthday present for the party on Sunday.

Pay council rates, water bills and overdue library fines. Book pilates. Realise you need to pack everything for the dance concert on Sunday. Cancel pilates.

Keep up with Messenger chats and work WhatsApps. Read kindy updates, check school newsletters and school emails and year-level Facebook pages to make sure you’re not missing anything important.

Think of something nutritious and appealing for the kids’ dinner. Realise you’re missing an ingredient and quickly pop to the shops before school pick up. Remember to get the orange for the soccer game on Saturday. 


The list of things on our mind just goes on, and on, and on… From the minute we wake to the minute we fall into bed, our minds are racing through the endless list of tasks we need to complete.

Sound familiar? That's a depiction of the 'mental load' most parents deal with these days - and especially at this time of year. While a relatively unaddressed problem, experts say it's one of the biggest burdens to household wellbeing. In this article, we'll explain the concept in-depth, the risks it poses and the benefits of taking action. We'll also list some simple tips everyday parents can use to lighten their mental load and make the most out of their finite energy as human beings.


What is the 'Mental Load'?

Simply defined, 'mental load' is a term used to describe the cognitively-draining work required to keep up with the responsibilities of a modern day family. It's often referred to as 'invisible labour' given the intangible nature of effort it involves. This continuous cycle of thinking, worrying, planning and organising can be relentless - and while a labour of love for many parents, has a way of hijacking their wellbeing.

Everyone's mental load can be different, but common examples of things that might contribute include:

  • Cleaning and household chores

  • Unpaid organising, list-making and scheduling

  • Event planning

  • Meal prepping

  • Financial obligations

  • Communicating with school, childcare and extracurriculars

  • Providing family members with emotional support

  • Decorating for the holidays

  • Buying groceries and school supplies etc.


The Impact of the 'Mental Load'

It's worth noting that this 'invisible labour' isn't all that hidden - for many parents, non-stop responsibilities like this are a reality of life, especially for women. Research states that female parents, even those who make a majority of their family's income, are as much as three times more likely to carry a greater mental load than their male counterparts. According to survey data, over two thirds of working mums (69%) say they have a mental load and over half (52%) feel tangibly burnt out from handling it. Men aren't immune, either. While mothers have proven to be the backbone of many households, Pew Research cites that fathers in dual-income families often feel just as overwhelmed. In some cases, either parent might also be the only one in the picture, further exacerbating these pressures.


In terms of tangible impacts, the effects are far-reaching. There are a number of negative mental and physical outcomes associated with carrying a load for too long.

Exhaustion

This one's pretty self-explanatory. When you're constantly thinking about, worrying about and doing things for others, it's easy to run out of steam. A mental load can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed, stressed and even burnt out - all of which can translate to physical symptoms like headaches, a weakened immune system and difficulty sleeping.

Poor mental health

Carrying a mental load day-in and day-out can also take a toll on your emotional wellbeing. This is especially the case for women, where research has linked a disproportionately high mental load to increased rates of anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders.

Relationship strain

The demands of a mental load can also put a strain on personal relationships. When one person is consistently shouldering more of the load, it's easy for resentment to build. This can lead to communication problems, conflict and a general feeling of disconnection.


The importance of lightening your mental load

So what does all this mean? Simply put, it's important to find ways to lighten your mental load whenever possible. The value of doing so is two-fold: first and foremost, delegating overwhelming responsibilities to a trusted family member or friend can help take weight off your shoulders and directly improve your quality of life. In addition to this, making a point of prioritising your own wellbeing as a parent can have a positive ripple effect on your family as a whole. Not only does it enhance your ability to function and be at your healthiest, but it also sets a powerful example for your children, who will likely face similar pressures in their own lives one day.


Tips for reducing your mental load

So how can you start lessening your mental load? Below are a few tips to get you started:

Delegate where possible

This one might seem obvious, but it's worth reiterating: delegate whenever possible! If there are other people in your life who are able and willing to help, take them up on their offer. This could involve asking a partner, neighbour or family member to pick up groceries for you, hiring a babysitter to give you a break or even just asking a friend to lend an ear when you need to vent.

Scale back activities

Audit all your family members’ activities and see what’s really working for you. If there’s a weekly event that’s putting everyone under stress then discuss alternatives including the option of doing nothing and having some ‘home’ time instead of said activity. Reduce some activities and ultimately, the pressure in your head.

Track things

Put a calendar on your fridge to simplify schedules and prompt kids to take action for their own responsibilities. Emptying the dishwasher, folding and sorting laundry and making lunches can be taught from a young age and can really take the pressure off busy parents.

Manage everyone’s expectations

The holidays are an especially draining time for parents who often feel expected to go above and beyond to make the season special. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, talk to your family and explain that you need to simplify things this year. Iterate that your holiday celebrations will be about quality time together, not presents and material things, and that taking such an approach will ensure everyone has enough energy to truly enjoy the season.

Offload things into Eggy

Eggy was designed by and for overloaded, busy parents to help ease the burden of the mental load. Use it to track, sync and manage family responsibilities, to-do lists, activities and schedules all in one place. Getting all those invisible things out of your head and into a visible, organised system will take a huge load off. You (and those around you) will notice a huge difference. You just have to take the first small step.

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