‘I couldn’t sleep thinking if I had locked the main door’. ‘I was worried if the children had been fed properly’. These statements made occasionally in our homes are examples of the ‘mental load’ taken up by the people making them. In this brief write-up, we talk about the concept of mental load, its effects on our everyday lives, including on the current lockdown time, and how to deal with it.
Mental load or emotional labor is the time and effort put into remembering things that go behind a work but are invisible and unacknowledged. Emma, the comic known for introducing the concept, puts it as “permanent and exhausting work.”
Mental load is not gender specific: although women are known to bear the most of it, men also take these loads. Mental load is a concern for everyone; it exists in many kinds of work and in diverse spaces. For example, in an office or educational setting, an individual in a group who is working on a presentation might be bearing the mental load of following up with colleagues on the presentation, putting the power-points together, booking the meeting rooms, taking notes, emailing the power-points to colleagues, to name a few.
At home, a family member bearing the mental load might be involved in making a grocery list and shopping; planning family get-togethers, inviting people to these get-togethers, and planning the menu; or paying the bills (electricity, telephone, water, garbage). Although a lot of time and effort goes into remembering these tasks and making them happen, they are neither noticed nor valued.
One prominent issue with mental load is the undefined, un-agreed and unseen responsibility that is shouldered unto an individual within a workspace or family unit. Non-acknowledgement of the mental load might also be interpreted as under-appreciation of the work being done. And excessive mental load can lead to emotional exhaustion or mental fatigue.
The distinction between home and office has been blurred by the stay-home situation right now. The result is that although the volume of work might not have changed (thanks to the work-from-home arrangements), the way in which these works are done has changed significantly. Unlike in past when people could compartmentalize household chores and lock them away in their minds while at office, they now find themselves constantly shifting between work-related responsibilities and household chores throughout the day.
This change affects the way people experience mental load as the mental labor of planning, arranging, and organizing chores has to be done for tasks of varied nature at once and in the same space. Importantly, Nepali women bear most of the mental load of caring for the family, and the lockdown has added to their challenges.
The first step in handling it is acknowledging it, giving it a name. Mental load is invisible work. And its invisibility to people not sharing this load is the thing that makes the load heavy and exhausting. So when we acknowledge that not all work is visible and mental labors like thinking, planning, organizing, and even worrying count as real work, the first constructive step is taken. The next step is for you to take responsibility for some aspects of the mental load so that the other person does not have to bear all of it. When every member sharing the common space, whether at home or at office, acknowledges and assumes individual responsibility, the load will be shared and its burden on any one person greatly reduced.
How can we share the mental load?
The first step to sharing the mental load is acknowledging the existence of mental load and making it visible. In the earlier example of mental load in a group presentation, sharing the mental load could be done by listing each of those tasks in the to do list and assigning responsibilities to the members for each of them. Mental load within family settings can also similarly be shared by acknowledging the work that is often overlooked and unaccounted for and sharing the responsibilities of these works among family members. Rotating responsibilities among members of the group (be it at work or family) can also help in building awareness about the invisible yet exhaustive mental work. And sharing the mental load can reduce the load of the individuals taking them as well as serve in the acknowledgment and appreciation the efforts put by these individuals earlier.
The stay-at-home situation for families due to the coronavirus pandemic has given us an opportunity to reflect whether the mental load within our families are equitably shared and to work towards sharing the mental load when it is lopsidedly shared.