What is Mental Load? How it’s different to housework, & how to reduce yours in 3 steps

Woman with mental load represented by thought bubble showing all the tasks on her mind

Mental Load is the work of having to constantly remember, organise, account for, plan and manage your life and the lives of others in your household. It’s sometimes referred to as being the CEO or Manager of the household. It frequently involves delegating tasks to others, or being asked “how can I help” when it comes to household tasks, instead of others taking complete ownership of tasks. And don’t be fooled – constantly remembering, organising, accounting for, planning and managing your life and the lives of your household – is work. It’s also work that’s disproportionately done by women. This post explains what Mental Load is, how it’s different to housework, and what you can do about it.

Mental Load comes with the assumption of being ultimately responsible for all matters relating to household management. Two adults in a household are not sharing responsibilities if they assume roles where one person is the de facto “manager” and the other is a de factor “subordinate”. The manager is responsible, and may delegate tasks to others to perform. But this still entails responsibility for ensuring that tasks are completed, on time, and that needs are met. That responsibility, and the assumption that you should bear it, is what creates the work that is mental load.

If you’re still unsure, the best explanation of Mental Load I’ve ever encountered is this excellent cartoon by French cartoonist Emma.

Why does Mental Load matter?

So what’s wrong with one person being the manager at home? Assuming that one person is responsible (whether consciously or otherwise), can mean that the adults are not behaving as equals. This dynamic can place strain on relationships and marriages. It can be a source of stress and overwork where hours of unpaid household work significantly outnumber hours of paid work. And it can impact the physical and mental health of the person bearing this workload.

There can also be an element of gas-lighting about Mental Load that contributes to the problem. Because it’s mental work, it generally goes unseen and unappreciated by other members of the household, compounding the problem. “Look,” he might say, “you do the cooking and I do the shopping. You do the cleaning and I do the DIY. You do the evening shift with the kids and I do the morning.” Equal, right?

Well, no. Not necessarily. If she’s also doing all the work of keeping track of what he needs to get at the shops, what DIY needs doing around the house, and what the kids need when he’s looking after them, it’s not equal. She’s doing a whole extra shift. If each thing that he does starts with him asking her what needs to be done, it’s not equal either. She’s doing much more work. That’s Mental Load, right there.

You’re not the problem, the work is

Someone bearing mental load may even feel that they are the problem. That they’re just not able to cope with something others find easy. That’s most often not the case, but the invisibility of the work, can make it feel like that.

Mental Load is often associated with not being about to ‘switch off’ or relax. It can prevent you from being able to fully enjoy leisure time. And it’s mostly invisible to the people who aren’t experiencing it. It is work that is disproportionately done by women, which contributes to ongoing gender inequality in and outside the home.

Mental load is also commonly a driver of decision fatigue – which means the more decisions you make, the harder each decision becomes. It’s different to physical exhaustion, and you may not even be consciously aware that it’s happening. Things might just feel… harder. In fact, decision fatigue is famously the reason President Obama took to wearing the same suits and keeping to a tight routine – to reduce the trivial decisions he made every day so he could focus his mental energy on the ones that mattered.

What’s the difference between Mental Load and Housework?

Housework is the physical work that needs to be done to manage a household. Though, of course, some of this is mental as well – such as managing finances or administrative work like calendar management. These tasks can be a source of Mental Load, but they’re not the same thing.

Household work goes beyond what most people think of – it’s not just cleaning, cooking and laundry. It also includes:

  • Care work – whether it’s childcare, elder care or other care responsibilities
  • Social and family management
  • Keeping track of everyone’s appointments and commitments
  • Maintaining social connections with friends and family
  • Managing household finances. Maintenance and repairs, including care for outdoor spaces
  • Cleaning, servicing and maintenance of vehicles
  • Pet care

Households and their needs will vary, but housework is far bigger than many people realise.

Mental Load is the mental work in keeping track of the housework, but is separate from it. 

If you’d like to understand more about the categories, hours of work and value of the work in your household take the ThirdShift Quiz now. If you’re a parent, try the new quiz, Are you parenting equally? It’s the first that measures your mental load so you can start to see if you and your partner are sharing the mental load and emotional labour of parenting fairly.

How can I reduce my Mental Load?

The first steps to reducing mental load mean getting the drivers of mental load out of your head. Drivers of mental load include:

  1. Understand what you’re doing currently – the source of mental load is responsibility, and the only true solution to reducing it is for someone else to take over that responsibility. So this does mean that open communication with your partner is the way forward. But if you don’t know how to start the conversation (or worry it might start a fight) there are some resources that can help. The Household Balance Calculator can give you a snapshot of your workload – and then you can invite your partner to try and and compare your results (bearing in mind both are simply your perceptions, the truth is probably somewhere between the two). Next, you can try the parenting quiz, which helps you identify the mental load of parenting – and it’s multiplayer, so you can both have an opportunity for input.
  2. Reminders and Remembering – A major source of mental load is having to remember what needs to be done, and reminding others. Shared calendars can be a great way to capture things you need to do and set automated reminders to get them out of your head. Writing to do lists in a notes app on your phone or a physical notebook, or emailing yourself are other ways to get things out of your head. But the biggest one is to stop taking on the work of reminding others and pushing back if your partner asks or expects you to do this for them.
  3. You Don’t Have to Be Responsible – Being ultimately responsible – or feeling that you are – is where mental load originates. So the most effective way to reduce your mental load is to have another household member take complete ownership and responsibility for their tasks. Find out more about what this means here.
  4. Don’t Take On More Than You Need To – Once you’ve handed over responsibility to someone else, let go of it. Harder than it sounds, but once you’re no longer responsible for a task, try not to think about it. This will help you worry less, reduce stress levels, and help you focus on what you need to. If you’re going to step in and pick up tasks when your partner forgets, they’re more likely to just let you do it, and nothing will change. So it’s important that you don’t allow that to happen – hand it over, step back, and if they’re going to forget – let them (provided no one else’s health or safety will be impacted).

Where to begin?

A starting point is to define all the things you’re doing and keeping track of, and work out what you don’t need to do, or can hand over to others. If you’re not sure your partner will be willing to take more on, take a look at this post to understand what might be going on.

If you want a faster solution, you can try taking the ThirdShift quiz in 3 minutes. Just enter some basic household characteristics and what you do currently. We’ll give you a quick overview on your hours of work, share of workload and the value of the work you do. Ask your partner to complete it as well to see if your understandings differ. Then you have some data to start a conversation about how to find a fair division of work in your household.

Further Reading

One of the biggest challenges in finding a fair division of household work is everyone taking complete responsibility for their tasks. Do you still have to remind others to do their tasks if you want them done on time? Read more about understanding the whole task to find out how to get everyone on the same page, and reduce your mental load at the same time. If you’re worried about having these sorts of conversations with your partner, find out more about why that is, and what you can do about it.

Ready to start creating equality in your home?

Knowledge is power – the first step to solving the problem is understanding it. Take the ThirdShift Quiz to start understanding what your work is worth.