Share the mental load

For this month’s Health & Wellbeing update we’re looking at sharing the mental load.

Our mental load has an impact on our wellbeing.

It may not be immediately obvious, but that doesn’t mean it’s not exhausting or that it can’t impact your physical, mental, and emotional wellness.

As we hit the halfway point of the year, it’s a good time to check in, examine our mental load and how we can do things differently.

Every household is different

Research has found a majority of the mental load (or cognitive labour) regularly falls with women.

Every relationship is different, and the balance of the mental load may be different in each household.

As we look at how the mental load impacts the wellbeing of women, the concepts for alleviating the mental load can applied to any household.

What is the mental load?

Mental load is defined as ‘… the cognitive effort involved in managing your work, relationships, a family, and a household. Mental load is the whole bundle of details you manage throughout the day. It has to do with your responsibilities, formal or not, as well as the decisions you have to make.’ (Source: BetterUp).

A good example for understanding this is cooking dinner for a group of people.

The mental load is the planning and organisation that goes into making it happen:

  • Remembering dietary requirements
  • Choosing a recipe
  • Doing the shopping to have ingredients to make the planned meal
  • Pre-heating the oven 20 minutes before you even start chopping
  • Emptying the dishwasher so you have all the cooking implements clean and ready to go

Often, the actual cooking of the meal takes less time than the preparation.

The invisible burden

For many households, the burden of mental load is often invisible, and difficult to quantify.

Part of the challenge is that it’s not just one job or one thing at a time, it’s a constant juggling act.

In family situations when children are involved, there can be more to remember and more things to feel responsible for, such as:

  • Multiple schedules to remember and coordinate
  • Clothing and feeding everyone
  • Homework
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Sleep schedules and bedtime

The mental load also includes things like managing health, holidays, and family celebrations. Even in smaller households this is still challenging.

The effect

When the mental load is unbalanced, it can leave many of us feeling exhausted and frustrated.

Assure’s Global Clinical Services Director April Jones said mental load can often be overlooked, and result in symptoms of depression.

“For women, it is often confused with comments of ‘a nagging partner, or a bossy mum’.”

“This can put our relationships, physical and mental health at risk.”

One of the challenges of the mental load is the expectation that one person needs to ask for help to receive it.

Whereas when the mental load is truly shared between the two parties, this isn’t required because both people in the relationship or household take responsibility for what needs to be done.

Households can go through phases of managing responsibilities. However, it is helpful to acknowledge that when and if the balance tips too far to one person, it can cause issues.

“Mental load is difficult to manage alone. It is important to have regular check ins to avoid reactive ‘blow ups’” April said.

Get balance back

If you need to share some of the mental labour or you’re the one being approached, there are ways to constructively approach the conversation.

Strategies to start the conversation

Here are a few tips for both parties to help get the balance back:

  • Set aside time to talk about it – Schedule uninterrupted time where you can talk about what’s happening for you in a calm and constructive way. It can be difficult if you’re already stressed or overwhelmed.
  • Communicate clearly – Explain what you believe the mental load is and give examples of how it plays out in your household. Resources may help someone understand what it is if they haven’t heard the term before. Maybe share this article or look up the comic ‘You should have asked’.
  • Use non-judgemental language – When you speak with your partner about it, focus on how you feel using ‘I’ or ‘I feel’ statements. Try to avoid phrases like ‘you always’ and ‘you never’, which may make your partner feel defensive.
  • Make a plan – Divide up your tasks, including everything involved with those tasks. Work out what this looks like for you, your partner and your family and be clear about who is responsible for what.
  • Remember you’re on the same team – Sharing the mental load will benefit both of you in the long run. And if you have kids, it will set a good example for them too.

How to support someone’s mental load

  • Listen without defending – Avoid using phrases like ‘But you are better at it than I am’, ‘but you’ve always done it and never said anything’ or ‘you should have asked’.
  • Be curious – Seek to understand what the invisible load is that she might be carrying. Ask questions like ‘how do you decide what we are going to have for dinner?’ or ‘what sort of things do you regularly need support with?’
  • Reflect on how the person is feeling – Use phrases like ‘I can hear that you really put a lot of thought and planning into it, which I didn’t realise.’
  • Don’t wait for one person to make a plan – Think through the household tasks list, what percentage of it is currently under your responsibility? Ask yourself honestly, can I step up and take on more? If so, take action.

Further help

If you find yourself needing support, reach out to your EAP provider for professional advice.

If your organisation is registered with Assure for employee health and wellbeing support, you get access to experienced counsellors. Find out more at