What is Mental Load?

Have you ever felt the stress of all the little details that come with running a household? 


Think about the task of grocery shopping. It sounds simple to go to the store and pick up all of the items on the grocery list. But that doesn’t take into consideration the work of creating and managing the list, monitoring food and supplies and noticing when certain items run low, and finding time to complete the grocery trip. That’s a lot of extra work that often goes unaccounted for. 


We now have a name for all that invisible work of planning, making decisions, and coordinating—and the stress that comes along with it. Experts have coined the term mental load to describe this type of work, but it’s also referred to as cognitive labour. Rachel Carrell, the CEO of childcare service Koru Kids, writes: 


“Mental load, also sometimes called emotional labour, is having lots of things on your mind. It’s having to remember to pick up eggs, to label your kid’s PE kit, to plan the Christmas shopping, to buy and make dinners for the week, to read the communications from school—the list goes on.” 


It’s important to note that mental load isn’t exclusive to the domain of household work. We may experience the pressure of mental load in the office or in school, or even in social settings. But the mental load of household work is something that deserves more attention. Like a lot of caregiving work, this cognitive labour goes unpaid, and the brunt of it falls on women. 

Why Does Mental Load Fall Disproportionately on Women?

The concept of mental load was popularised by a comic illustrating the dynamics of modern relationships and highlighting the inequities of societal norms around gender. But the conversation around mental load has since become much more mainstream. Having a name for the experience has given us a better way to talk about the realities of what it means to be a mother juggling the responsibilities of kids and household chores, and in many cases, a career outside the home.


One 2019 study surveyed women who were married or in domestic partnerships about their role in managing their households. The majority of women surveyed reported that “they alone assumed responsibility for household routines involving organising schedules for the family and maintaining order in the home.”


Other research shows that while women continue to enter the workforce in increasing numbers, they still tend to take on a larger share of household duties than their male counterparts. A 2019 Gallup poll found that women still maintain a larger share of domestic labour, even in dual-income households. 


Perhaps because they are not confined to the same gender norms of many traditional couples, same-sex couples tend to share domestic responsibilities and mental load more equitably. A 2015 report by the Families and Work Institute concluded that “same-sex, dual-earner couples do not consistently share responsibilities equally but relative income and work hours are not reliable predictors for how they do divide responsibilities.”


It’s also important to keep in mind the mental load experienced by caregivers in nontraditional situations, like single mother or caregivers of ageing parents. These unsung heroes often have no one to share the burden of mental load with. Some of these challenges call for systemic solutions. But the good news is, there are small steps that every partner can take to ensure that the other person in their relationship isn’t unequally burdened by the mental load of running the household.

How Can Partners Help to Balance Mental Load?

Communicate With Your Partner

If you’re realising that there’s an unequal divide of mental load in your household, the first and most important thing you can do is talk to your partner. Dr. Melissa Estavillo, a licensed therapist and couples counsellor, emphasises the importance of getting on the same page with your partner: “When couples don’t feel as if they’re on the same team, working toward the same goals in ways that seem fair, this can result in relationship distress.”

Resist the Temptation to Take Control

One common barrier to establishing a more equitable mental load share is that the person who is presently responsible for a certain task around the house may act as a gatekeeper, either consciously or unconsciously. For example, if one partner is typically in charge of the laundry, they may be unsatisfied with how the other person sorts the laundry or the wash settings they use. 


First, consider embracing the freedom that comes with relinquishing control over that extra responsibility. But if certain details are important to you, it’s okay to verbalise that. Relationship coach Kelly Gonsalves writes: “You need to be able to trust your partner to get things done. If you care about something being done a certain way, you can explain why it's important to you. Frame any such requests not as criticism but as a way your partner can show they love you—by caring about the small details you care about.”

Delegate the Planning, Not Just the Execution

Find ways to divide not only the execution of household tasks, but also the planning, organisation, and supervision of those tasks. Back to the laundry example—instead of asking your partner to do a single load of laundry here and there, you could ask them to be in charge of monitoring the dirty clothes basket, making sure everyone in the household has enough clean clothes, putting clean clothes away, and picking up dirty clothes that may be left on the floor. This approach can ease more of the mental load because it relieves one partner of all the legwork around a recurring task.

Balancing the Mental Load is an Ongoing Process

Unfortunately, creating a more equitable distribution of cognitive labour in the household isn’t a one-and-done situation. It requires open communication, trial and error, and lots of patience. 


Whether you’re the partner bearing most of the mental load or the one looking to take some of that burden away, one of the best things you can do is empathise with and appreciate the other person for everything they contribute to the household. Understand that your relationship is a work in progress and that there may be a learning curve when it comes to understanding the role mental load plays in our lives and relationships. 


And whenever possible, offer words of affirmation and gratitude to your partner. Remind each other how much you love and admire one another. It can go a long way in strengthening your relationship and making your household run smoothly—and keeping everyone’s mental health intact.


As you work together to balance the mental load of running your household, Lifemin may be able to help. Our service is designed to help busy parents stay on top of the kids’ school calendars and events. Learn more about how it works here.