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Unpacking the mental load

Unpacking mental load 800

Consider the list: school runs, lunches, homework, housework, work meetings, organising dentist and doctor appointments, doing the shopping, laundry, ironing, family stuff, friend stuff.

Tired yet?

This daily juggle is known as ‘the mental load’. It’s the invisible work involved in managing a household, family, relationship or children. And it’s a load that falls unevenly on women.

“Often, the busy woman is extremely good at juggling work and other people's demands at the expense of herself,” says Professor Jayashri Kulkarni AM, Director of HER Centre Australia and a leading expert on women's mental health.

We know that women in Australia spend more time doing unpaid housework and childcare, and have less free time for themselves than men do. We also know that women’s mental health is suffering and, according to Professor Kulkarni, the

Divide, don't delegate

As founder of the Mental Load Project, Dr Robyn Miller helps people and their partners recognise and rebalance an uneven mental load. “It’s about both partners relearning a new way of thinking,” she explains.

As for practical advice, “‘Divide not delegate’ is my mantra,” says Dr Miller. “Divide the whole task, including the thinking, pre-planning and planning stages.

“For example, the person responsible for doing the laundry is also responsible for noticing when the basket is full, keeping track of the detergent supply, remembering when the linen was last washed, and ultimately putting the clothes in the machine.

“It then becomes part of their mental load, not yours,” she says.

Dr Miller believes an essential part of the process is to make space for your partner to shoulder some of the workload. Accepting that they may do things differently is also key, she says.

Negotiating these changes takes good communication and motivation. If change doesn’t come easily, outside help may be needed.


It can help to recognise that certain times might be particularly challenging for women’s mental load.

Jean Hailes Clinical Psychologist Gillian Needleman points to two life stages: “The first is if you've got young kids,” she says. “You might be trying to work part time, worrying about sick leave, school holidays … trying to maintain friendships and juggle your own health and exercise – it can be really tough.”

The other stage is at midlife or menopause. Many women get sandwiched between parenting their own teenage children and caring for their ageing parents, all the while dealing with menopausal symptoms like fatigue.

But there are ways to ease the overwhelm. “Often we just keep propelling ourselves towards a certain direction without actually standing outside of it and checking whether it works for us, or what we could do differently,” says Ms Needleman.

Say yes to no

According to Ms Needleman, one of the greatest skills a woman can master is learning how to say no and not over-commit. These talking tips and examples might prove useful if you’re feeling stretched:

  • Express gratitude for the opportunity – “Thanks for inviting me to be on the committee.”
  • Show empathy – “I know it must be really difficult to get volunteers.”
  • Share your honest feelings – “I’ve got so much on my plate right now, I’m feeling overwhelmed.”
  • Provide a solution – “Perhaps I could help when I have more time on my hands?”

And remember, setting boundaries is not being selfish or mean. It’s a crucial part of self-care.

Time to unload

While we can’t do much about stresses like rising interest rates and living costs, there are ways to cope better through trying times.

“Talking it out with friends or family is an important strategy for women,” says Professor Kulkarni. “Putting it into words can reduce the impact [of stress].

“I would encourage women not to use alcohol as a coping strategy. Replace alcohol with exercise. It’s a head-clearing activity and it diffuses tension in the body,” she adds.

And when it comes to the to-do list, Professor Kulkarni recommends being in the moment of whatever task is in front of you.

“If you're spending time with your child, then be there with them and get enjoyment out of this time. Being in the moment and not thinking about your long to-do list will help to decrease your sense of anxiety.”

Three tips
  1. Pause and take stock of your mental load. Is it working for you? What could be done differently?
  2. Divide up tasks, don’t delegate. Include each stage of the task, not just the task itself.
  3. Set boundaries and take time for yourself. Recharging is a crucial part of protecting your mental health.