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What is Mental Load and How Does it Affect Mental Health?

August 21, 2023 | Katie Lawliss, Psy.D. | 10 min. read

Every person has a to-do list.

In the month of August some of my to-do list includes bringing in my dogs for their annual vaccines and check up, getting my car inspected, getting a haircut, calling my home insurance company to ask a question. A typical to-do list consists of things like going grocery shopping as needed, keeping the house clean, doing laundry, and more. On the surface this may seem like a few tasks to do, but in reality there are different phases of each of these tasks, known as the planning phase and the execution phase. The planning phase is the invisible labor of the task. The invisible labor of tasks adds up and creates the mental load. The execution phase is the physical act of completing the task.

What is Mental Load and How Does it Affect Mental Health OMHG Blog

For example the planning phase of grocery shopping includes planning meals for the week, making a list of grocery items needed, checking the refrigerator and pantry for what is low, asking family members what snacks they would like from the store, checking expiration dates on items, and budgeting for the grocery shop trip. The execution phase of grocery shopping is the shopping itself, loading and unloading groceries and putting them in the pantry and fridge. Oftentimes someone may offer help by going to the store and grabbing groceries for you, but in reality it only helps with part of the task and is usually the easier part of the task. You still need to do all of the planning phase of the grocery shop and will likely have to answer texts and calls while the person is at the store to answer questions they have. While the person offering to go to the store is trying to be helpful, it may not be as helpful as we think it is. To fully take a task off of someone else’s plate, the person needs to do the task from start to finish, including the invisible labor/planning phase. 

Has the above example or something similar happened to you? You are grateful for the help, but are left still feeling overworked and overwhelmed. This is likely because you are in charge of the mental load of the majority of household tasks.

Your partner may go to the store to pick up groceries, drive your car to get an inspection, and take your kids to summer camp, but you are the one to plan the entire grocery shop, keep track of when car inspections are due, research the best place to take your car, make the phone call to schedule the appointment, research summer camps, tell your partner where the summer camp is, ensure that you planned snacks and outfits appropriate for the weather for that day at camp, and filled out the forms that your partner needs to drop off when he picks the kids up. The book Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much To Do (and More Life to Live) by Eve Rodsky discusses the mental load and how it can affect mental health and relationships. She also has cards that a couple can use to help divide tasks in a fair way because each person is in charge of a task from start to finish, including both the planning and the execution. 

It can be overwhelming to be in charge of the mental load and not get credit for it because people only see the execution phase. Did your partner grill an amazing dinner for your neighbors this weekend? Amazing! And you may have been the one to plan/execute grocery shopping, ask the neighbors for any dietary restrictions, look up the recipe for the dry rub your partner used on the steaks. You also may have been the one to research the best grill to get when you first bought the house. While people may not know the things that you did because it is the invisible labor of the task, you have still done an amazing job. 

By splitting up tasks fully so that one person is doing both the planning and the execution, it can help each person feel more appreciated for their hard work.

Additionally, it can help the mental load be split amongst each other, rather than it falling on one person. Oftentimes, when the mental load is primarily on one person, they can experience anxiety and feel overwhelmed. When you are used to being the one to have to mentally keep track of everything you can become accustomed to feeling more anxiety because your brain is always working overtime. If you do not have anything to do, you may feel anxious because there is usually always something to do. This may look like you having trouble sitting down on your couch and relaxing because you are trying to remember to remind your partner that he is in charge of bringing the dog to the vet tomorrow and you need to tell him which vaccines they are due for. 

Relationships thrive when there is a healthy separation of tasks because it helps both partners take better care of their mental health, leads to more appreciation and recognition, and it helps both partners feel mutually supported. 

If you are interested in learning more about the mental load and invisible labor, read Eve Rodsky’s book mentioned above or watch the documentary Fair Play based on her work. If you and your partner want to work on dividing the load more evenly but are having trouble figuring out how to do so, reach out to a couples therapist or talk with an individual therapist about this goal. Our therapists at OMHG can help you identify ways to manage tasks in a healthier way for both you and your partner. 

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