Let’s talk about ‘the mental load’ – and why women bear it more

Feel like you’re teetering on the edge because of just how much stuff you have to deal with to keep life rolling? Here’s how to cope with the mental load.

It’s close to midnight and you’ve wearily ticked off most of today’s to-do list but you know, come morning, those seemingly never-ending responsibilities will be lined up once more.

Welcome to “the mental load” – the term which, more than ever in today’s fast-paced world, seems to sum up how many of us are feeling. Every. Single. Day.

And it seems to impact women the most.

What exactly is ‘the mental load’?

“The mental load is the invisible yet substantial burden of managing the myriad details that keep households, families and even work lives running smoothly,” psychologist Donna Stambulich explains.

“It encompasses everything from planning and scheduling to remembering important dates, coordinating tasks and anticipating needs – a relentless juggling act that often goes unnoticed and unappreciated.”

And right now the burden is heavier than ever, community psychologist Dr Marny Lishman says.

“There’s post-pandemic fatigue, and people are hypervigilant because there’s so much going on in the world, so that bucketful of stress is overflowing,” Dr Lishman says.

Why do women feel more of the mental load?

Our experts say this weighty cognitive load falls predominantly to women.

“Historical and societal factors contribute to this,” Donna explains.

“Traditional gender roles, while evolving, still cast us as the primary caregivers and homemakers.”

Dr Lishman adds: “Women do it almost by default and we bring it on ourselves a lot of the time.

“Because we’ve always done it historically, and we’re always thinking on behalf of all the people we care for, we put it on ourselves.”

Science backs this up – a 2019 Harvard study of 35 heterosexual couples found women in the relationship tend to take on more of the cognitive load, particularly when it comes to anticipating the needs of others and monitoring progress.

How to ease the mental load

The constant mental gymnastics required for planning, organising and anticipating can lead to burnout, stress and diminished mental wellbeing, Donna says.

“Balancing a demanding career, family responsibilities and personal aspirations can be overwhelming, a Herculean task, leaving little room for self-care or your own passions,” she says.

But, our experts say, there are ways to help ease the mental load:

1. Be self-aware

“Take a step back and have a good look at everything you’re taking on as your load, as a first step,” Dr Lishman advises.

2. Identify themes

“Look at what’s stretching you most,” Dr Lishman suggests.

“Are you the one responsible for looking after the kids’ sport, booking holidays, managing appointments, and knowing when there’s nothing in the cupboard to eat? Look at the themes.”

3. Consider how you can share

“Open communication and shared responsibilities within partnerships and households can lead to a more equitable distribution of tasks,” Donna says.

“Delegating, both at home and at work, not only empowers others to take ownership, but (also) lightens your load.”

4. Learn to prioritise

Remember, not every task needs immediate attention, Donna advises.

“Embrace technology, calendars and apps, which can streamline the mental load – and prioritise!” she says.

5. Check in mindfully

“Use the change of seasons, so every three months, have a mindful check-in and look at what’s working and what’s not,” Dr Lishman says.

“It might take some time to get a better balance, but it will be worth it in the end.”

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Written by Liz McGrath.