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Why Unpaid Work Is Making Us Ill

Women do the majority of care-giving and housework but there has been little research on its effect on our health – until now

By Felicity Robinson

In a fit of frustration this week, I made a mental tally of everything I did between 7am and 9am on an average morning. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice to say the list would fill an A4 page with very small writing.

And I wasn’t cutting up sandwiches in some zen-like state of mindfulness, either. While packing four lunchboxes and shouting for children to find their shoes, my mind was running to the numerous small but important tasks that fill everyone’s diaries at this time of year. (Where would I get three berets for French Day? What would a five-year-old boy like for his birthday on Saturday? I forgot to book the dog’s vaccination. Do I need to start ordering Christmas presents?)

I know I’m not alone in the amount of unpaid labour, both mental and physical, that I carry out every single day. This is the subject of every second blog post, podcast, playground conversation and office lunch across Australia, or at least those involving women. We know that women do the majority of domestic work, even if they work outside the home. In fact, during lockdown, that reached an epic 8.58 hours a day. We know the effect of this unpaid labour on our professional life, as more women cut back on paid employment ­– or even gave it up altogether ­– to prioritise their domestic responsibilities.


We know that women do the majority of domestic work, even if they work outside the home

But what don’t know – weirdly ­– is the effect of all this extra work on our mental health. Most of us would hazard a guess that it isn’t… great, but very few studies have actually interrogated what unpaid labour and the mental load does to our psyche. Until now.

“Little or no attention has been given to how unpaid labour is associated with health or, more specifically mental health among employed adults,” confirms Jennifer Ervin, in her review of the subject published in The Lancet last month. As a PhD candidate within The Centre for Health Equity at the University of Melbourne, she has become one of the first academics anywhere to look at the health effects of unpaid labour on a large scale.

Ervin reviewed studies from countries including Australia, the UK, the US and Europe, featuring a total of 133,426 participants, to track the connection between unpaid work and mental health. Unsurprisingly, there was a negative association between unpaid labour and mental health, particularly for women. The more unpaid hours they worked in the home, the higher their scores for depression, for example. Most studies reported no association for men.

Little or no attention has been given to how unpaid labour is associated with health

In her paper, Ervin suggests some reasons for these findings. “Men commonly do the less time-sensitive, high-schedule-control jobs within the household, such as outdoor or maintenance tasks, which might be more enjoyable and possibly protective.” One study found that housework was associated with feeling stressed, and for men it was associated with “feeling unaccomplished in one’s daily goals.”

Long-term stress increases the risk of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, and sleep problems, all of which women are reporting at higher levels than ever. (Interestingly, sleep problems affect not only mood but women’s work ambitions, according to a study released last month. If women got a decent night’s rest, they were more focussed on achieving status and responsibility at work.)

But what is it about unpaid work that makes it so damaging to women’s mental health? Again, it’s hard to say without more research but Ervin suggests that part of the issue is the mental load involved in unpaid work. “Not only is unpaid work about the hours spent, say, doing housework, but the perpetual juggle and multi-tasking that’s going on in someone’s head,” she says. Her University of Melbourne colleagues defined this mental load as “invisible, boundaryless and enduring” ie It. Never. Ends.

“For example, mothers of young children often make mental lists of children’s day-to-day routines or activities, which at face value is just cognitive labour,” they write. “This evolves into a mental load when the mother is at work thinking not only about the routines and activities, but also about the experiences of their child in these routines and activities, which is emotional labour too because they are worried about their child even in their absence.”

Not only is unpaid work about the hours spent, say, doing housework, but the perpetual juggle and multi-tasking that’s going on in someone’s head

What’s more, women may experience what sociologists call “role conflict”, where their roles as mother, partner, carer for parents, employee and others become impossible to do, or at least do properly. This can trigger the stress-related pathways that lead to poor mental health, adds Ervin.

It’s easy, as Kristine Ziwica notes in her recent book Leaning Out, to explain all this inequity by saying ‘it’s because men are a bit shit’.

But “if some men are shit (and for the avoidance of doubt, some really are),” she continues, “we also have shit systems, workplace practices and public policy that preserve men’s privilege, and work against those men who want to go against the very gendered grain of work and home.”

And one of the key ways to demonstrate the need to change the system? Cold, hard data. As Ervin says (well, in as many words), if you don’t measure this shit, you can’t expect to change it.

“When it comes to influencing policy, and certainly when it comes to actually trying to prove theories, you need population-level data, you need data not just for you and I, and what happens in our lives anecdotally,” she says. “If you can show an effect at population level you can actually start to influence policy levers. If you can say this is becoming a burden on our health system or the economics of the country, that’s when you can have some influence.”

For an example of good policy, Ervin cites Norway’s parental leave policy, which includes a non-transferable, use-it-or-lose-it paid leave for fathers. Men (or the non-birth partner) receive 15 weeks of paid leave and, because it can’t be transferred to the mother, the uptake is excellent. In fact, 90 per cent of men take their full leave.

“I think the important thing about this is that not only does it equalise time off work at that transition point for both men and women, but it has a knock-on effect in this normative acceptance that men can be care-givers as well,” says Ervin. “They also gain experience of the mental load. Overall, it just levels the playing field.”

And frankly, imagine what women could achieve if they weren’t spending so much time on lunchboxes and berets? Probably as much as men.

Collage: Millie Bartlett


BY Felicity Robinson

Felicity is the co-founder of PRIMER. She is tired of making lunchboxes

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