The Shift that Never Ends: The Mental Load of Invisible Work

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Tired woman working while taking care of two children

It’s no secret that women have always done the lion’s share of unpaid work, both in the home and in the workplace. From cooking and cleaning to childcare and emotional labor, women have always shouldered most of the burden of domestic and caregiving responsibilities. However, it wasn’t until 1989 that sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term “invisible work” to describe this phenomenon.

Since then, the concept of invisible work has become increasingly recognized and discussed. The mental load of invisible work includes a variety of tasks that are often taken for granted or even overlooked entirely. These tasks range from making medical appointments to managing family finances to organizing social activities. The list is seemingly endless, but it all adds up to an immense burden and a significant amount of strain.

What is “Invisible Work”?

Invisible work refers to the often unrecognized and unacknowledged emotional labor that goes into managing a home and family, from making sure bills are paid to keeping track of appointments. This type of work is typically seen as a “natural” role for women in society, and it often falls on them – either by choice or through gender-based expectations – to take the lead in this area.

Invisible work is not limited to women, and partners of all genders can find themselves carrying the burden of this type of labor. What’s more, it can be particularly taxing for those who are taking on such responsibilities for the first time or who have recently stepped into a caregiving role. The mental load of invisible work can be a source of frustration and stress, as it requires ongoing attention to detail and multiple tasks that may not be visible to others.

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Examples of Invisible Work

Invisible work can encompass a wide range of tasks, from the mundane to the complex. Some examples include:

• Scheduling appointments and coordinating logistics for family members

• Keeping track of bills, deadlines, and due dates

• Researching products or services to find the best deal

• Stocking the pantry with food items and other supplies

• Planning meals/cooking for the family

• Doing laundry and other household chores

• Managing family finances and budgeting

• Ordering and tracking online purchases

• Keeping up with maintenance tasks such as yard work and repairs

• Checking in with family members to ensure their wellbeing

• Looking after children’s education/health needs.

The Impact of Invisible Work on Mental Health

The load of invisible work can take a heavy toll on an individual’s mental health. It can lead to feelings of overwhelm, stress, and burnout as the person attempts to juggle multiple responsibilities with limited support. This can be especially true for those in single-parent households or who are taking on the bulk of caregiving responsibilities in a partnership.

This type of work can also lead to feelings of guilt and inadequacy, as it is often seen as something that should be “natural” or “easy.” It can be difficult for those taking on this burden to prioritize their own needs and desires when there is always something else that needs to be done.  The mental load of invisible work can be a source of chronic stress that impacts an individual’s overall well-being.

How Mental Health Providers Can Help

It’s important to recognize that invisible work is a serious burden for many people and can have significant implications on their mental health and well-being. Mental health providers can be an invaluable source of support and guidance for those struggling with the mental load of invisible work.

Here are some ideas for how providers can help:

Start the Conversation

One of the most important steps in helping clients manage invisible work is to simply start a dialogue about it. Many people may not realize how much this type of work affects their mental health and well-being, and they may feel too embarrassed or ashamed to talk about it.

Encouraging clients to open up and discuss the various tasks they are responsible for can help make the burden feel more manageable. It is important for mental health providers to validate the feelings of overwhelm and anxiety that can come with invisible work. Acknowledging these emotions can be a powerful first step in helping clients to manage their stress levels. Normalizing the conversation around invisible work can also help individuals who are struggling to feel less isolated.

Offer Practical Strategies

Mental health providers can offer practical strategies and techniques to help clients reduce their mental load. This could include teaching them how to prioritize tasks, create efficient systems and routines, outsource where possible, or utilize available resources. Providers can also help clients identify areas of their lives that may contribute to the overwhelming feeling of stress and develop healthier coping mechanisms to manage it.

It is important to recognize that everyone’s situation is unique and what works for one person may not work for another. Mental health providers can help clients find the strategies that work best for them and their lifestyles.

Provide Resources and Referrals

Mental health providers can also provide resources and referrals to help clients manage their invisible work. This could include connecting them with community organizations that offer assistance or finding online tools that make it easier to track tasks and deadlines. They might also recommend books, websites, podcasts, or other materials that can offer guidance and support.

Encourage Self-Care and Boundary Setting

Self-care and boundary setting are essential for managing the mental load of invisible work. Mental health providers can help clients find ways to make time for relaxation, exercise, and other activities that nurture their physical and emotional well-being.  They can also help them learn how to say “no” and set limits on their commitments so that they are not overwhelmed by too many responsibilities.


The mental load of invisible work is a real burden for many people and can have significant implications on their mental health and overall well-being. Mental health providers can be a valuable source of support and guidance in helping clients to manage this type of stress. By encouraging open dialogue, providing practical strategies, offering resources and referrals, and emphasizing self-care and boundary setting, providers can help their clients find ways to reduce the mental load of invisible work and lead healthier, more balanced lives.

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