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Does it sometimes feel like, in addition to your daily job, you have another managing position at home — but without the benefits, it being full-time, invisible, and unpaid? All your mental efforts — the organizational responsibility — of managing a household and a family are referred to as the Mental Load — an “invisible” labor that typically still falls on a woman’s shoulders (Daminger, 2019). Mental load can cover several aspects of your daily life, such as work, family, and relationships. You may feel like you are the only one in charge; you’re solely managing everything by yourself; that the burden of juggling these tasks is completely on your shoulders, and everything will collapse if you miss the slightest thing.
Invisible, unlimited work
This sounds like a lot of pressure. Your mind feels restless because there is always something that you have to remember. It is exhausting, it is permanent, and it is invisible. You may constantly be scanning the environment, planning schedules, identifying things that need to be done, and overviewing their progress. Therefore, it is hard to pin it down and measure it.
Experts say that this work running in the background comes in three overlapping categories. First of all, there’s cognitive labor which is thinking about all the practical elements of household responsibilities, including organizing playdates, shopping, and planning activities. Secondly, there’s emotional labor which is maintaining the family’s emotions, such as calming things down if the kids are acting up or worrying about how they are doing at school. And finally, the mental load is the intersection of the cognitive and emotional labor: preparing, organizing, and anticipating everything, emotionally as well as practically, that needs to be done to keep up with the day-to-day life (Hogenboom, 2021).
Essentially, the mental load is about taking on the responsibility of “anticipating needs, identifying options for filling them, making decisions, and monitoring progress (Daminger, 2019).” — let me call it, a big net of responsibilities and you are the sole manager.
Women & mental load
Women more often feel the impact of the mental load due to societal expectations of having to know how to manage their daily lives with their partner and later when they start a family. The latest, when women become mothers, “this double responsibility blows up in [their] face”, as the French comic artist Emma illustrates it. Of course there are exceptions, but statistically, women are still the ones managing household tasks in addition to their normal jobs.
Stress & Mental Load
As you can imagine, mental load and stress overlap — both refer to the relationship between what is demanded of you and your own resources to meet these demands. It may help to think of yourself as a battery: in an ideal energetic state, you are fully charged and in balance; realistically, and this goes for everyone, your battery needs to be recharged because external demands require your resources.
Factors such as working over time or with jet lag, taking care of family and friends, as well as your emotional state (such as nervousness or anxiety), or external factors such as noise and light in your work environment, have an impact on the energetic state of your battery. Some of these demands can be controlled and impacted; others cannot be changed. You, for yourself, have to see where you stand right now.
Do you need to recharge your battery and maybe let go of your own standards and possibly of some of your responsibilities?
How can you let go of mental load?
Before you change something about your current situation, it can make sense to reflect and assess it by making a list of all your responsibilities, not only including the responsibilities that one can see but also the ones that are taking place in your mind. Try to prioritize and delegate them by asking yourself what actually needs to be done and whether you’re the only one who can take care of it. Ask yourself why do I have to do all these things on my own? Wouldn’t it be more valuable if they are done less perfectly but you have time to rest and relax? This might appear odd at the beginning, but you will profit from it in the long run.
Once you are there, start to think about how you can delegate some of your responsibilities to reduce your workload and regain a healthy work-life balance. Delegating some of the responsibilities is one of the most effective ways to reduce workload and regain a healthy work-life balance. Moreover, the ability to delegate is also a recognition of the expertise of other employees and a sign of trust.
In order to delegate, you have to start talking to the people involved in your mental “overload”, be it your life partner, your flatmate, or your family. Tell the people involved that you are struggling; tell them how you feel. Explain to them how strongly you feel responsible and that you need someone to take over some of your responsibilities; explain that it’s not about asking for help, but reaching out to someone who is ahead of you and will independently take over your task. It might even need some explanation on your side on what the mental load is because your “invisible” task and the stress that comes with it can easily get unnoticed by others. If needed, you can even show them “your” list of responsibilities.
Once you have reorganized and divided your chores, you need to trust the person to fulfill their new responsibility. In the beginning, you might still find yourself not being able to let go and constantly overviewing everything. And this is completely fine because learning how to share the mental load will need some time, multiple conversations, and adjustments. So, the whole process will need a little patience until everything is running smoothly.
It’s also helpful to check in once in a while to figure out how things are going, what’s working or not working, and how everyone is feeling about their new responsibilities. You could start by doing this every week or every month so that you can tell if things are changing for the better or not.
The weight of the mental load can feel crushing. So, don’t be afraid to open up about it and ask for help. You don’t have to do everything by yourself, sometimes we tend to assume that we have to handle everything by ourselves, but it’s okay to pass on some of your responsibilities to others. Thus, with communication, support, and the delegation of tasks, you can reduce the mental load and still find your life running smoothly.
Daminger, A. (2019). The Cognitive Dimension of Household Labor. American Sociological Review, 84(4), 609–633. https://doi.org/10.1177/0003122419859007
Hogenboom, M. (2021, May 18). The hidden load: How “thinking of everything” holds mums back. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210518-the-hidden-load-how-thinking-of-everything-holds-mums-back
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