What is it and how does it affect mental health?


Over the past few decades, gender roles have evolved and changed to reflect changing societal norms. Yet despite these changes, disparities in unpaid domestic work still exist between men and women in relationships around the world. In this special feature, we take an in-depth look at how this unequal division of unpaid labor affects women’s mental health and relationships. We also spoke with three experts to better understand this global issue.

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Women continue to take on the majority of unpaid work. What does this mean for their mental health? Image credit: Juana Mari Moya/Getty Images.

Although gender roles are less rigid than they were decades ago, data suggest that in heterosexual relationships the burden of unpaid work still falls on women, even in cohabiting relationships where both partners are employed.

For example, 2021 data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that both spouses were employed in 46.8% of married couple families. Yet statistics also indicate that 59% of women report doing more household chores than their partners.

However, other data suggest that since the mid-1970s, the time men spend on household chores has doubled. For example, in 1976, men spent about 6 hours a week on household chores. In 2005, this number increased to approximately 12.5 hours per week.

But, during those same years, women spent even more time doing unpaid household chores — specifically, about 26 hours a week in 1976 and about 16.5 hours a week in 2005.

Yet the impact that inequalities in unpaid work can have on women’s mental health is often overlooked.

To dig deeper into this question, scientists from the University of Melbourne, Melbourne, VIC, Australia, investigated the relationship between unpaid work and mental health in employed adults.

Their findings, published in Lancet Public Health, suggest a negative association between unpaid work and the mental health of employed women. However, the researchers did not find the same associations for working men.

To conduct the research, the scientists reviewed 19 studies with 70,310 total participants from around the world. Eligible studies were peer-reviewed and measured the amount of unpaid work among employed adults. They also pointed to associations between this type of work and self-reported mental health problems, including depression and psychological distress.

After reviewing the research, the study authors found that women reported taking on more unpaid work, regardless of their geographic location and schedule. Moreover, this additional burden was associated with poorer mental health in women. However, the impact on men was less clear.

Additionally, the researchers also found that an increase of one hour of unpaid work per week led to small but significant changes in mental health status. Additionally, some studies in the review reported a 0.2 to 0.4 point increase in depression scores for every 10-hour increase in unpaid work time.

Although further investigation is needed, the study authors suggest that persistent inequalities in household work continue to exist between male and female partners around the world. And this imbalance puts women at increased risk of negative mental health effects.

Study author Jennifer Ervin, a doctoral student at the Center for Health Equity at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, said Medical News Today:

“There is no universally accepted term or definition for unpaid work – also known as unpaid work, unpaid care work, domestic work or domestic work – but it is considered to comprehensively encompass all responsibilities and tasks performed to maintain a household and its family members without any explicit monetary compensation.

“Childcare is therefore important, and, in a related way, the care of people with disabilities, health problems or the elderly. But it also includes household work like laundry, food preparation, cleaning, shopping and outdoor chores,” she added.

The study authors suggest that a heavy unpaid workload combined with job responsibilities can contribute to role overload, conflict and lack of time, which can have a negative effect on mental health. .

In addition, household chores are often perceived as mundane, undervalued or unpleasant.

However, men may experience fewer mental health problems with unpaid work due to the nature of the tasks.

Ervin explained:

“We know that men generally do the less urgent tasks within the household, such as outdoor or maintenance tasks. These are referred to in the literature as high schedule control tasks – because one has more control over when one undertakes this type of unpaid work.

To further clarify, Ervin said that “a good example is that you can delay mowing the lawn until the weekend, for example, when you are less pressed for time, whereas you cannot delay lawn mowing. feeding a starving child or driving a dependent to a medical appointment. .”

“Outdoor chores are also theorized to not only be less time-sensitive, but may also be more enjoyable and possibly more protective than other types of housework,” she added.

Dr. Naomi Murphy, consultant clinical and forensic psychologist and co-founder of Octopus Psychology, said DTM“Inequality causes anxiety and depression. It creates distance between unequal parties and causes mistrust and resentment. […] This can leave women feeling belittled and resentful of their partner and overwhelmed by the amount of responsibility they have.

She also noted that the unequal burden “can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness within the relationship.”

“If more of the responsibility is taken on by one person, it can create a feeling of being overwhelmed and the feeling that you cannot take on all of your responsibilities; it can also lead to loss of confidence,” Dr. Murphy explained.

Household work disparities between men and women can result from several factors. Ervin suggests that it may be “essentially rooted in historical context and time – when it was normative for women to be homemakers and for men to be breadwinners”.

“As a result, there remain deeply rooted gender roles and social norms around the gendered division of domestic labour. Unfortunately, despite the entry of women into the paid workforce in unprecedented numbers during the 20th century, there has not been a parallel or equal increase in the participation of men in work on the home front. “, explained Ervin.

Dr. Murphy further noted the intergenerational impact of inequalities in unpaid work:

“Families often encourage girls to participate more in household chores; generations of women have done it, so the patterns are ingrained. As girls are more likely to imitate their female role models, this role model is passed down from generation to generation.

In addition to mental health damage, the ongoing inequalities of unpaid work can impact personal and professional relationships.

According to Dr. Mark Goulston, psychiatrist and executive coach and founding member of the Newsweek Expert Forum, imbalances in unpaid work “can make women feel more overwhelmed, [to] often feel […] that at all times they are disappointing someone so that if they are focused on work they neglect home and children and if they are focused on home and children they neglect work.

He also noted that “exhausted women can become impatient with their children and feel deep resentment inside that can make them feel ashamed and an awful mother.”

According to Dr. Murphy, “The loss of confidence created by being overwhelmed can [also] spill over into professional life. »

Additionally, “the person who takes on the burden of household chores may feel angry at their partner for not being their weight, which can translate into intimacy issues,” she added.

To help make changes when there is an unequal division of household chores, Dr. Murphy offered the following suggestions for women:

  • talk with your partner and tell them how you feel before the problem becomes problematic
  • discuss and negotiate a fair division of labor
  • find ways to appreciate each other and remember why you fell in love
  • finding ways to value and appreciate yourself
  • consider couple counseling to rekindle closeness, intimacy and improve communication.

“Try not to criticize the way your partner makes the contributions they make – they may not do it as quickly or in the same way as you would like, but criticism is likely to deter them from contributing” , she also advised.

On a larger scale, changing deep-rooted unpaid work inequalities within families may require specific policy changes.

Moving forward, Ervin suggested that “[p]Policies such as universal childcare and the normalization of flexible working arrangements and extended paternity leave for men can help change the game and foster greater gender equality in the division of unpaid work. and unpaid care.

“However, it is important to be careful of policies that only target women, as this can reinforce gender inequalities,” she stressed.

“We need to dismantle norms around what it means to be an ideal worker and highlight the importance of gender-neutral approaches to leave and flexible working – taking into account how work fits into family life for women and men. This is fundamental for gender equality.

-Jennifer Ervin

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