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What is mental load? Recognize the burden of invisible labor

January 4, 2022 - 18 min read

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What is mental load?

Examples of mental load

Emotional labor vs. mental load

Is mental load bad?

Mental load in the workplace

In your professional life, you should have clearly defined roles and responsibilities. Your job title comes with a list of tasks that you are personally responsible for.

But our day-to-day responsibilities go far beyond the duties we are expected to perform at work. Think of all the details you have to manage throughout the day.

Walk the dog. Call the plumber. Check work emails. Schedule a work meeting. Fold laundry. Make dinner. Make a reservation for date night. Check-in on your friends.

The list goes on and on. 

Constantly trying to keep track of what needs to be done can become mentally and emotionally exhausting. This strain is called mental load.

Let’s take a closer look at some mental load examples and what you can do to manage the stress of this invisible labor.

What is mental load?

When we speak about mental load, we focus on cognitive agility and labor rather than the physical labor involved. Of course, this doesn’t imply that the person experiencing that effort doesn’t also do the physical work.

What makes mental load especially difficult to deal with is that it is often invisible. The stress you manage, the chaos you endure, the juggling, code-switching, and mental weight of it often goes unnoticed by others.

In group settings at work, mental load includes the unrecognized responsibility of extra work some members will take on to maintain the group. This can be a significant load of which other team members or leaders are fully unaware. This might mean being attuned to other group members' emotions or energy to maintain equilibrium, sustain motivation, or even to keep certain members happy in order to avoid conflict or destructive and unproductive behaviors.

woman-using-laptop-at-her-desk-mental-load

Let’s look at an example of organizing a goodbye work lunch for your colleague who is retiring. Although planning the event is not in your job description, the employee retiring is one of your good friends. Your manager has asked to organize the party and you find it difficult to say no.

The invisible labor starts with research. Do your team members have any dietary requirements? Which restaurants will cater to these requirements? Is the restaurant too far away? How will everyone get there?

Once you’ve decided on a restaurant, it’s onto the organizing. This includes syncing up everyone’s work calendars to find a date and time everyone is available. You also have to choose a retirement gift for your colleague, buy a card, and have everyone in the office sign it.

Since you are the organizer of the lunch, on the day you try to keep your colleagues entertained and happy. Using your emotional intelligence, you take on the responsibility of keeping the conversation going and making a farewell speech.

These are the unrecognized tasks for just one work-related event. But mental load comes from all aspects of your life: work, family, and friends. The burden of managing all these decisions and tasks can leave you feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.

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Examples of mental load

Let’s look at a few more real-life mental load examples to understand the concept better:

  • Remembering colleagues’, friends’ and family members’ birthdays, and buying gifts or otherwise celebrating them.
  • Orchestrating activities across a cross-functional team and anticipating and dealing with roadblocks.
  • Organizing check-ins to see if team members are on track with projects.
  • Menu planning, making shopping lists, doing grocery shopping.
  • Scheduling service providers and bill payments.
  • Planning family or friend vacations.
  • Keeping track of daily parenting-related tasks. This includes things like clothing and lunches, doctor’s appointments, school assignments, after-school activities, and playdates, as well as the emotional well-being and development of children.
  • Needing to always ask a colleague or your partner for help because they don’t volunteer or do things proactively.
  • Having to offer praise or otherwise maintain the ego and well-being of a colleague, leader, or your partner when they are carrying out day-to-day tasks.

Emotional labor vs. mental load

Sometimes the terms "mental load" and emotional labor are used interchangeably, but they are different.

As mentioned, mental load is the cognitive effort involved in managing relationships, a household, and a career.

Emotional labor is the way people regulate their emotional responses at work and in personal relationships. They do this to put colleagues, customers, or family members at ease. Dr. Arlie Hochschild came up with the concept of emotional labor in the early 1980s.

Let’s look at a few examples of emotional labor to see how it differs from mental load:

  • Baristas smiling and being cheerful to customers, even if they are having a bad day.

barista-in-coffee-shop-mental-load

  • Partners who are expected to do all the domestic planning, whether that is for children, family gatherings, or scheduling vacations. 

To recap, emotional labor is managing or regulating emotional expressions. Mental load is from managing all of the invisible and intangible tasks. Although different, mental load and emotional labor are closely related. 

Is mental load bad?

If not managed, mental load can have negative consequences. Let’s take a look at some of them.

1. Emotional exhaustion

Constantly thinking about the responsibilities and tasks involved in your career, relationships, and household management is emotionally draining. This can lead to emotional exhaustion.

A few symptoms of emotional exhaustion include: 

2. Burnout

The person who bears the burden of mental load often doesn’t have much time to relax and take care of themselves. Even when trying to enjoy a few moments of me-time, they still end up worrying about the tasks that need to be taken care of when their moment of leisure is over.

This can lead to burnout, which is a state of severe emotional, physical and mental exhaustion. Burnout can also lead to a pessimistic outlook and the feeling that they have nothing left to give to their loved ones and employer. They are then left to recover from burnout on their own. 

3. Anxiety and depression

Trying to juggle work and home issues can be overwhelming. Those who deal with mental load usually can’t step away from it, which can lead to anxiety and depression.

4. Sleep deprivation

The stress of mental load can lead to sleep issues such as sleep deprivation. This can create other problems, such as compromising the immune system, being irritable with those around you, and even disconnecting emotionally from loved ones.

woman-taking-a-nap-on-couch-mental-load

5. Not prioritizing healthy eating and exercise

Constantly focusing on the demands of your job and household tasks can lead to basic self-care taking a back seat. This can start with not prioritizing healthy eating and exercise

Not giving the body what it needs can result in further negative impacts on physical and mental fitness.

Mental load in the workplace

In the workplace, mental load is the cognitive effort involved in handling your responsibilities as well as the extra work and duties you take on. This extra work helps ensure the workplace runs smoothly and that your coworkers are happy. Most of those little or not-so-little extras involve a lot of “remembering work.”

employee-checking-lists-mental-load

Mental load examples in the workplace include:

  • Reminding colleagues to handle essential tasks.
  • The need to offer praise to colleagues for dealing with necessary tasks.
  • Doing the work to schedule meetings, generate video call links, book meeting rooms, ensure attendance, and take notes.
  • Keeping the office stocked with communal milk and coffee.
  • Planning after-work events, colleagues’ birthday cards, and the team social calendar.
  • Editing and formatting team reports to make them presentable before sending them to management.
  • Being the first team member to break the ice at meetings or during Zoom calls.

The problem with taking on extra responsibilities that are not part of your core job description is that it adds to your existing mental load. It could harm your overall health and well-being to the point of burnout.

Taking on additional responsibilities at work is something many of us do. One of the reasons for this is that when we work more than 40 hours a week, we may apply our family dynamics to our workplace. Our colleagues become something like an extension of our family.

Just as many of us try to pass off the chores we don’t like doing at home, some of our colleagues try to avoid doing tasks they don’t like at work. While there are dedicated, respectful, and hardworking individuals, others are the opposite. 

Team members may show less initiative when working in a group than they do working by themselves. In social psychology, this is called social loafing. The concept describes how a person puts in less effort to achieve a goal when they work in a group than when working alone. These "free riders" leave other team members to make all the decisions and do all of the mental labor. Meanwhile, they benefit from the extra effort of other team members that creates a better work environment or a more successful project. 

How to deal with mental load

Mental load is a big burden to carry. However, there are healthy ways to deal with mental load or decrease it.

Changes may not happen overnight. But it's important to bring awareness to the challenges you're facing if you want to see progress.

1. Start the discussion

Discuss your concerns about handling most, if not all, of the invisible tasks. In the workplace, set up a meeting with your manager to discuss your concerns around your mental health and extra work responsibilities. At home, sit down with your partner, friend, or family members to share what’s been weighing on you. 

Acknowledge that mental load is a real issue. Speak up for yourself by explaining what the mental labor in your career or relationship feels like to you. Be prepared with a list of things you would like to change. The more specific you are, the more likely they will understand how you feel.

2. Delegate

Don’t try to do it all yourself. Further, ask two questions: 1) Does this work actually need to be done? 2) Am I the only one that can do this work?

Sometimes we are overburdening ourselves from an unexamined assumption that we have to take care of (or control) everything. And that we are the only person to do it. Ease your mental load (and extend trust and growth opportunities to others) by delegating tasks (and the associated mental load) to other colleagues or family members.

3. Practice self-care

The cognitive and emotional labor that comes with managing your career, household, and personal life can get in the way of a self-care plan.

smilng-woman-with-closed-eyes-and-crossed-arms-in-nature-mental-load

Make a point of practicing self-care by mindfully eating healthy foods and getting enough rest. Build good habits that can help you with stress relief, such as mindful breathing and journaling.

4. Communicate

Communication is essential for dealing with mental load. As well as raising your concerns with your manager or colleagues, ask for help when you need it.

If you are in a team, explain to your team members that you would like them to take some of the mental load by taking the initiative. They need to understand that waiting for you to ask for help is not enough.

5. Seek professional help

Seek help from a professional if you do not know how to approach your colleagues, partner or family. A therapist can also help you find ways to manage your stress.

6. Set boundaries

Not setting boundaries can lead you to take on more responsibilities and a greater mental load. Set boundaries in your relationships to ensure you have time to relax and do things you enjoy.

7. Find a work-life balance

Strive for a greater balance between your work and personal life, especially if you experience mental load at home and in the workplace. 

For example, use time blocking to dedicate time for family and time for work. Learn to say no in situations that would increase your mental load, whether at home or in the workplace.

Don’t bear the brunt of mental load

Mental load is real. It's not always observable or immediately obvious. But that doesn’t mean it’s not exhausting or that it can’t impact your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. If not managed, it can affect your personal and professional relationships and your work performance.

Changing the status quo requires the courage to speak up and do things differently. There is an aspect of personal transformation involved in lessening the load.

Move toward personal transformation that frees you from some of that mental burden. Learn to manage your mental load, or help your team members share mental load more evenly, with the help of a BetterUp coach.

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Published January 4, 2022

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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