How to share the mental load in a household

by Feb 6, 2024

Share the mental load in a household


I coach and interact with hundreds of women a year. Probably more. In all of these discussions there is a constant theme. How to share the mental load in a household or within a couple.

Post pandemic, many heterosexual households do seem to be making greater efforts to split the physical workload within a family a little better. Yet for a variety of reasons, some valid, some not, they still tend to organise the key tasks along sterotypical gender lines. Even in couples who think that they have achieved a fair split of chores, there is one area which remains resolutely unchanged.

Thinking work!

Time is crated equally, but the reality is that some people’s time gets filled up more than others.The mental load or thinking work that goes into running a household is sadly assumed by women who deal with the majority of this type of work.

Robert Baker who runs Male Allyship programmes for international organisations said “this is one of the big issues in personal relationships which also impacts the workplace for women (and men).”

Mental overload is definitely a reason why women turn down promotions and even leave the workplace. So, perhaps the topic warrants a slot in corporate programmes for Male Allies.

What is the mental load

Mental load, also called “cognitive work” or, ‘Invisible work,’  means the behind-the-scenes stuff that keeps a home and family running efficiently. In addition to task manegement this incldues the perennial tasks such as remembering birthdays, reading the class letter and acting on the baked good request, buying birthday gifts. Layer on organising play dates, or booking medical check-ups.

They seem like small jobs – but cumultatively they mount up, especially for each addiional family member.

One senior executive told me recently that her partner didn’t care as much as she did about getting these things done or worry if they were not done properly. “He isn’t as concerned as I am about the fall out for what doesn’t happen. If  our son didn’t have a birthday present to take to a party or they didn’t have the right sports clothes. It matters.”


How to share the mental load in a household

I thought it would be helpful to also check into my LinkedIn network to see how they went about sharing the mental load. They came up with some useful tips. Read on!

1. Communicate openly

The first step is to agree that the mental load exists and is an issue is an important starting point. Both partners should openly communicate about their responsibilities, concerns, and needs regarding household thinking tasks.

Maja Paleka, Australian coach who works with couples on this very issue suggests “that the best starting point is to understand that this is at the same time neither partners and both partners ‘fault’. That it is deeply rooted in gendered stereotypes we are all raised with. We all perpetuate them in our relationships – no matter how hard we try. So compassion for each other is good place to start, not blame. Then the work of making the invisible visible starts where the person carrying the load has to find a way to share it, and regularity and often.”

2. Audit of all thinking tasks

It’s much easier to agree who does the shopping or the laundry than the invisble workload. But it can be done. Make a list of all thinking work and allocate tasks based on willingness to commit to what needs to be done, skills and availability. This is tricky if both members travel.

Does your household need a chore audit? – 3 Plus International

You may encounter a degree of “what aboutery”  so factor that in to see if it’s valid.  A male executive told me that his wife didn’t take into account the time it took to arrange for their cars to be insured, serviced, and winter tires put on and taken off. So include everything in a neutral and blame free way. It’s not a competition.

A typical gender split of chores tends to be that men undertake the ad hoc or less regular tasks while women run the daily minutiae of everyday life.

See point 7 below using and app to help you identfy they key tasks

3. Agree priorities

Prioritise tasks together and be willing to compromise on certain aspects to lighten the mental load for both partners. Discuss the emotional and relationship impact of every day situations such as the impact of not having a gift to take to a birthday party or completing the school project on time. Make sure your assessments are realistic and not emotional. Sometimes what doesn’t happen can be important but on other occasions the only person who will notice is you.

Listen to this podcast with Ian Dinwiddy on sharing the load 

Bernadette Pawlik Career and Job Search Strategist, confirmed what many others have also shared, that they take an almost business approach to their domestic situations: “We use planning tools: A shared Google calendar so we can each see what is forthcoming. A weekly family planning meeting when we assess who has what going on what needs to get done will be done, and by whom (grocery shopping, housekeeping, etc.) Every night after dinner, we do a next-day plan which is exactly that”    

4. Check-in regularly

This is not to be confused with maternal gatekeeping. If you tend to micro-manage keep it in check. Schedule regular check-ins to assess how the division of labour is working and if adjustments are needed. This allows for ongoing communication and prevents resentment from building up. Support each other as appropriate.

5. Outsource

If budget allows, don’t hesitate to outsource certain tasks or seek help when needed. At the upper end of the scale, executives are increasingly using personal assistants or concierge services for the thinking tasks such as researching summer camps, planning family trips, managing the birthday calendar, and so on. If you have the means  – do it.

6. Involve your kids

Clearly, kids have to be old enough, but the moment you can involve them in whatever elements of the process are age appropriate do so. This encourages them to become responsible and independent and you can reward them if you feel that is appropriate. Remember no gender pocket – money gaps.

7. Tap into tech

Thanks to  Kelly Keating for sharing this app Share the Mental Load  from Starling Bank who exposed the gender pocket money gap.

8. Gamification

Another resource is Eve Rodsky’s  book Fair Play  recomended by Megan Spivey.  You can also follow the Fair Play Policy Institute on LinkedIn which supoprts care and gender equity in the workplace.

Rodsky has introduced  gamification into the proicess of splitting the mental load based on the project management principle of CPE (Conceive, Plan, Execute): Each partner’s role is not to do the job, but to ^take ownership of the task, from conception to planning to execution. This frees women from the mental and emotional labor required for those specific tasks. “No reminders, no nagging, and no excuses.”

Transferred into a card game, The Fair Play Deck  – each partner takes a cards with a task on it to plan execute and deliver.

What steps do you take to share the mental load in your household?


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Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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