Updated: Mar 13
I was doing some research for a workshop I designed recently for International Women’s Day and came across some research that showed how women across the globe perform a disproportionate share of unpaid domestic work. That probably doesn’t come as a surprise but it got me thinking about mental load.
What is mental load?
Mental load is the cognitive and emotional effort involved in managing family, relationships, the household, caring responsibilities and work (which 72% of us do).
It’s different to the actual carrying out of tasks and is related to the “thinking work” and “emotional work” involved. Men and women can experience mental load, although typically its experienced more by women.
Why is this?
Even in progressive households where couples split the carrying out of chores pretty evenly, there’s still often one person doing more of the thinking work, and more of the hidden forms of care. I see this in my own house.
My husband and I have a modern setup, he takes a really active role in bringing up the kids, running the house, organising our finances and making decisions. He probably does more of some of these tasks than I do. But I definitley carry more of the mental load, and the thinking and emotional pressure that goes with everything that needs doing. Anticipating the needs of others, being there for those around us, researching options for decisions, endless lists, reminding my husband about things, sorting out logistics, worrying about the kids, remembering birthdays and important dates, buying presents, organising childcare, calling or texting our parents and family, remembering details involved with the kids school, nursery and other activities, arranging social events and catch ups.
Never did I experience mental load more than when the kids came along. It’s literally another level! I was definitely more focussed and productive in my 20’s.
If you have added things like additional needs, disabilities, neurodivergence, physical or mental health concerns for yourself, kids or family members you care for - the mental load is even higher.
Why are women typically more affected by mental load?
It’s complex. Lots of factors can contribute to a person experiencing mental load —family history, role models, personal upbringing, societal expectations, gender role stereotypes, natural divisions of chores in a household and so on.
An additional factor is that men and women’s brains are wired differently which means they worry differently. Research shows that when women worry, they tend to use both the left and right side of the brain, so there is more of an emotional reaction involved. Whereas men tend to stay within the left hemisphere which is the analytical side of the brain.
Case in point - I was chatting to my husband whilst writing this article and he jumped straight in with ‘what can you do about it’, I gave him some of the tips you’ll find below and he didn’t feel there was enough real, practical, hands on advice. So I beefed up that section. But it goes to show how his brain had a very ‘left hemisphere’ response of jumping straight into action mode. Whereas I had a bit of that, but was also concerned with the emotional, feeling and nurturing side of things.
What impact does mental load have?
The hidden work involved is hard to measure, because it’s invisible and performed internally. The stress you manage, the chaos you endure, the juggling, switching, and mental weight of it often goes unnoticed by others.
The emotional and mental impact of this can be exhausting, emotionally draining, lead to overthinking, lack of motivation, anxiety, overwhelm and can affect your sleep, your mental health and wellbeing. As a result your relationships, focus and performance can be greatly impacted due to having so much spiralling round your head.
It can be hard to give any task your full attention. When you’re at work you’re thinking about home and vice versa.
It’s also likely you’re putting yourself at the bottom of the priority list around all the other things you need to keep on top of. Exercise, diet and looking after yourself are harder to make time for. You might be constantly on the go and unable to switch off and relax.
All of this can lead to burnout.
How to alleviate mental load
Recognise that it’s a big burden to carry and changes might not happen overnight, but there are things you can do to help yourself.
Some of us feel the weight of mental load but may not realise how we’re subconsciously contributing to it. Keeping on top of everything and worrying could be a control mechanism driven by perfectionism, fear of failure, people pleasing, fear of being judged, disappointing others, feeling like a bad parent or partner or not trusting others. If you’re feeling weighed down by mental load my advice would be to reflect on whether any of these things are true for you.
2. Take stock
Write down everything that’s on your plate; tasks, things you worry about and things you have to keep on top of.
Identify what’s in your control and what isn’t.
From the list of things you can control, what can you stop doing, cancel, reschedule, outsource or delegate.
You might want to work out your values to help you decide what you keep hold of and what you don’t.
Look at what’s left and prioritise. You could use an urgent and important matrix. You could pick out the top 2-3 things that absolutely need doing each day. You could time block tasks. You could use apps and shared calendars. You could use the pomodoro technique.
Be realistic about what you can achieve and try to focus on one thing at a time. Also be honest with yourself about things that suck your time unnecessarily like thinking of what to have for dinner, looking at clothes online, scrolling social media etc. Is there a way you can protect time for these things and set a timer?
3. Delegate or outsource
Ask yourself whether it’s only you that should be doing tasks or all the associated thinking and worrying. Sometimes we subsonsciously overburden ourselves by assuming we have to take care of everything and that we’re the only person to do it. Delegate or outsource as much as you can to others. This could look like getting shopping delivered, hiring a cleaner, paying for a babysitter, using a meal subscription service, having a meal planner, taking turns with you partner to put the kids to bed, asking for support from friends and family, asking your children to help around the house if appropriate.
4. Start a discussion
With your partner, family, boss or colleagues at work. Explain what the mental load is like for you and how it feels. Think ahead of things you would like to be different and have an open and honest conversation about support. You don’t need to shoulder everything on your own.
5. Give Yourself Permission
Not every day needs to be super productive. Give yourself permission to go slower, take your foot off the gas, let things be messy and imperfect, relax, lie down, ask for help or do whatever you need to do to.
Acknowledge how much you’re actually doing and give yourself a break. You’re probably doing far more than you realise.
After my daughter was born I used to tidy up every night before I’d let myself sit down, I quickly realised after my son was born that this was exhausting and I didn’t need to do it. So a lot of the time I simply don’t. My husband and I still clean the kitchen after tea and do the dishwasher, keeping on top of the house in this way, but I don’t go around every room picking up toys off the floor every night now. I’d rather give myself time to wind down in the evening instead so that’s what I prioritise. I’ve learnt to be ok with a bit of mess. I also have a cleaner does a deep clean for us every other week. A godsend!
6. Take time for yourself
As women we need real moments of solitide and self-reflection to balance out how much of ourselves we give away. Don’t let life get in the way of looking after yourself. Get enough rest, eat as well as you can, build good habits with exercise, breathing, journaling, mindfulness or whatever looking after yourself means for you.
Take it in short bursts throughout the day, and book in longer periods where you can. If you go off track for one reason or another, remember to get yourself back on the priority list.
Set yourself up for success
Are there things you can do to help yourself like set your yoga mat beside your bed so you can get up 5 mins earlier to do some stretches before you start your day? Get out some healthy breakfast toppers and set them on the side ready for breakfast the next day? Plan out your meals for the week on a Sunday?
7. Assess Your Values
When you know your values you have a deep sense of who you are and what’s most important. When you live in alignment with your values you feel a sense of contentment, a sense of ease, a sense of joy and an ease with life. Referring back to your values can help you make decisions, prioritise and live in a way that’s more true to you. Click on the word 'values' highlighted in blue for my free downloadable worksheet to help you work out yours.
8. Set healthy boundaries
Boundaries are like an invisible bubble that defines what you let in, what you keep out, what you allow, what you don't, what you say yes to and what you say no to.
They support and protect your emotional wellbeing, time and energy.
Some of the most important boundaries are the ones you set with yourself, like:
- Going to bed by a certain time
- Signing up to a weekly yoga class and putting that above everything else (unless there’s an emergency of course!)
- Not looking at your phone during certain times of day, or after a certain time each evening
- Getting up earlier each morning so you have time to read, meditate, listen to a podcast or do something else you enjoy
If you'd like some support with reducing your mental load and working through the steps above, feel free to book in a free 30 minute call to find out more about how I can help you through 1:1 coaching.
Love Lisa xx
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