Mental load: What it is and how to manage it

mental load blog

Have you ever felt drained — even if you haven’t exerted yourself physically? You could be feeling the weight of carrying a heavy mental load.

Mental load is the “thinking” work you do daily. A cognitive task such as remembering which groceries to buy may not seem like much. But when those invisible tasks accumulate and the load gets heavy, it can affect your relationships, physical health and mental well-being.

What is mental load?

Mental load typically refers to the behind-the-scenes, cognitive and emotional work needed to manage a household. Examples are meal planning, scheduling and generally meeting the needs of every family member. The mental tasks you take on at work can also add to your total load.

Experts at the University of Melbourne suggest that mental load tends to be:

  • Invisible, taking place internally but resulting in added physical labor
  • Without boundaries, existing at work, during leisure time and interrupting sleep time
  • Never-ending because it’s typically tied to the constant care of loved ones

When children are involved, your mental load often also involves emotional work — shaping and managing the feelings and experiences of others. Whether your child didn’t make the soccer team, is overwhelmed with homework or just lost a pet, they may need support. Emotional work is unpredictable, and you may need to manage your own feelings and reactions to address the emotional needs of others.

Health effects of invisible labor

Ongoing or increasing mental load can lead to added stress, anxiety and sleep deprivation. Over time, those health issues increase the risk of developing chronic disease.

Living with a heavy mental load can also strain relationships at home or work — wherever the load seems uneven and overwhelming. Unbalanced cognitive load in any relationship may directly relate to your:

  • Feelings of self-worth
  • Partner satisfaction
  • Risk of burnout

How to reduce mental load

Mental load will never go away completely, especially if you are a parent or responsible for others. But these five tips may help make your mental load more manageable:

Talk to your partner about your mental load

The person you live with may not be aware of everything you do behind the scenes. Find a time and place where you’ll be undisturbed and gently explain how you feel and all you manage mentally.

Together, you can identify a way to divide some of the load based on personal strengths and availability. Plan to meet weekly to review the mental labor for the upcoming week and assign those tasks. Just remember, you’ll have to plan for unexpected emotional work if you live with children.

Make a mental labor list and prioritize

Making a weekly or daily list can help get those invisible “to-do’s” out of your head and where you can see them. See if you can break bigger tasks into smaller steps so they feel more manageable.

Rank your tasks and focus on the ones that must be done immediately. Consider keeping two lists: a master list and a top priority list. Anything that doesn’t need to be handled that day or week gets moved to the master list. That way, you won’t forget future tasks, and they won’t take up valuable head space.

Delegate and try to let go

It isn’t easy when you’ve been managing the mental load for your family and want things done a certain way. But remember that having you in a good mental state is one of your family’s top needs.

Consider assigning some of your mental load to a partner or family member or hire a part-time personal assistant. Communicate tasks clearly. Trust that the job will get done, even if it’s not the way you would do it.

Set boundaries

A characteristic of mental load is that it doesn’t have boundaries. But setting boundaries where possible may help remove some of the burden. Pick volunteer opportunities that work for you and help others when you can, but reserve the right to say “no” to any or all of it.

Set boundaries with older children, too. Make them responsible for packing their own school and sports bags. Use shareable apps for shopping lists and family calendars, then give everyone in the family access and shift some of the responsibility.

Prioritize self-care

Taking some time for yourself is the best way to reduce stress and manage your mental load more efficiently. Try practicing yoga, meditating or doing a hobby you enjoy. Get enough sleep and try to move your body daily — even short bursts of exercise have physical and mental benefits.

Take the Next Step

If you are struggling with mental load or other mental health issues, reach out to your primary care physician.