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Cooking, cleaning, care work: The impact of unpaid work on mental health

Updated: Jan 18, 2023

Women uniformly do more unpaid work in more than 35 countries around the world, amounting to three times as much of as men.

New research, published in Lancet Public Health, now tells us that this unpaid labor is linked to poorer mental health in employed women.

Unpaid labor is often defined as including 'all responsibilities and tasks done to maintain a household and its family members without any explicit monetary compensation.'

Now a first-of-its kind review has contextualized the impact of unpaid labor on cumulative stress load, quality of life and burnout - especially for women who already face the stressors of the modern workforce.

This adds to a previous US study that found inequities in the division of housework contributed substantially to differences in depression between men and women.

The findings

A research team from the University of Melbourne synthesized 14 studies included—totalling more than 66,800 participants worldwide and confirmed “persistent inequities in the division of unpaid work,” and that these inequities “expose women to greater risk of poorer mental health than men.”

"We found substantial gender differences in exposure to unpaid labor," said research lead Jen Ervin."With women uniformly doing more in every geographical and time setting—in more than 35 countries—around the world,"

The disproportionate amount equals three times more unpaid labor than men and three-quarters of all unpaid work in total, according to previous data.

Relational vs repetitive labor

Balancing work and family obligations is often seen as a core social challenge for women - the problem is, that this takes effort beyond even the physical.

"There is an undeniable mental load that accompanies unpaid labor and family responsibilities," said Jen Ervin.

Key to understanding the issue is something that researchers call the 'drudgery' component (which makes up the largest share of the unpaid work burden).

While relational work such as playing with children can be stress reducing, it's the repetitive, time consuming, and physically demanding domestic tasks that are associated with greater mental health burden, cumulative stress load and have a negative impact on quality of life.

Essentially, the less relationally rewarding the labor, the more it may cause substantial fatigue and stress.

Stress burden

Anecdotal and scientific documentation of women's struggles balancing professional responsibilities while also being responsible for cooking, cleaning, and caregiving were highlighted during the pandemic in particular, along with a rise in working from home.

The lack of time for women to spend on leisure, rest, or recovery compared to men has implications beyond fairness: health can be compromised.

"Stress activates the release of neurohormones, including cortisol. Women who experience household tasks and childcare as highly stressful have been shown to have higher cortisol levels and slower recovery of cortisol than women who report low stress from this type of unpaid work." - 'Women’s wellbeing and the burden of unpaid work', BMJ

Sustained high cortisol levels may partially explain some adverse mental health outcomes, including depression, in women doing unpaid work.

Burnout risk

Balancing a job and chores at home is a critical factor.

"This double burden of paid and unpaid work exposures women to greater risk for overload, time poverty, and poorer mental health. Crucially, women are also routinely trading off paid work hours to meet their disproportionally high unpaid labor responsibilities," said the researchers.

This underscores the importance of greater attention and meaningful action at a systemic level - reducing the disproportionate burden might mean policies and changes at a governmental or workplace level that better enable men to take on their equal share.

Similarly, reaching a point of greater equity in the division of unpaid labor means examining life at a personal or interpersonal level, too.

Time spent considering what values and vision individuals and couples have for their lives and exploring ways to find better balance that work for their situation can be a helpful starting point (and something that coaching is designed to help with).

All of these actions have the potential to improve women's mental health, say the researchers.

Learn more about ELANZA coaching to help with balance, boundaries, and burnout here.


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