For many people in Australia, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a profound impact on everyday life, which unquestionably adds to mental load.
When the mental load isn’t shouldered equally within households, it can become a heavy burden that can lead to stress, fatigue and overwhelm, all of which can affect our mental health and wellbeing.
But what is mental load?
Although widely felt, mental load can be tricky to explain as it refers to seemingly invisible mental work that we do, but rarely stop to consider.
Put simply, it is the never-ending to-do lists, organising, prioritising and planning that helps keep our work, home, family and social lives running smoothly from one day to the next.
While this affects everyone, data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics from pre-COVID-19 indicates that women in Australia spend on average significantly more time on unpaid domestic work and caring for children. And although the pandemic has seen many aspects of our lives turned upside down, this inequity has remained largely the same, according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies survey Families in Australia: Life during COVID-19.
With this work comes a responsibility for the management, organisation and planning associated with these tasks – the mental load.
Existing societal norms and expectations
As to why the mental load falls so heavily on women, Anne Hollonds, former director of Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) and current Australian National Children's Commissioner, believes that existing social norms and cultural expectations play a significant role.
She also notes that although mental load is something women have experienced over the past few decades, discussion about it has significantly increased as women take on a number of different roles within modern society, with the most notable shift being a surge in working mothers.
“The mental load is ingrained in many women from a young age by their families and society. We’ve been socialised into believing that it’s part of being a ‘good mother’ and a ‘good wife’,” she says.
Hollonds also points out that while mothers’ employment alters dramatically after having a child, and for years to come, fathers’ employment remains virtually unchanged.
“While fathers today may be more involved in childcare, the number of hours fathers spend in employment remains the same after the arrival of children,” she says. “Mothers, on the other hand, tend to be the primary carers of children under one and take years to gradually increase their time in paid employment.”
“When it comes to “choices” about parenting responsibilities, the availability of parental leave for fathers and the gender pay gap are still barriers for couples who would otherwise choose to share family responsibilities more equally.”
Stepping back and switching off
Despite there being true value in being the family’s main caretaker, if carrying the mental load feels too heavy and leaves no time for enjoying other things – including simply switching off from time to time – it can diminish mental health and wellbeing.
For people to relinquish some of the mental load and regain some time to themselves, taking a step back at home is key.
“A lot of couples need to pay more attention to how they share responsibilities,” says Hollonds. “And it's not just who cleans the toilet or cooks the meals, it's also who's keeping an eye on what needs to be done next. And, particularly with children, that running inventory never stops.”
Prioritising self-care is a key part of supporting good mental health. Find out why you should do something for yourself each day.
Start with a conversation – there’s no time like now
Being open about the fact that mental load even exists as part of your day-to-day life is a big step towards sharing it.
If you’re taking on the bulk of your household’s mental load without discussion or acknowledgement, you may well be unknowingly absolving other family members from sharing the load – even if they’re more than happy to help.
And although it might feel hard to redress at times of immense uncertainty and challenge, Hollonds suggests that periods of big transition can actually be a good time to bring about positive change.
“There are certain times in life when having the conversation about how to reach a healthy balance of labour is crucial,” she says, pointing to significant life changes such as moving in together or having a first child as examples.
Adapting to the new way of a COVID-normal time fits the bill, too.
"To ensure you’re carrying the mental load equally during your life together, it’s imperative that you build a mechanism in your relationship that allows for these ongoing conversations,” she says.
“It’s also something that ought to be discussed as your circumstances evolve and change over time because things just don't stay the same. It can be an uncomfortable conversation to have but the more you have it, the easier it gets.”
Knowing when to share the mental load to help support her mental health is something Roopinder (Roo) Dhillon, a full-time lawyer and mum, has learnt to do. Read Roo’s personal story.