The unpaid work imbalance: what do you know about invisible labour?

Sophie Cox

Senior Comms and Marketing Officer, Mental Health at Work

Invisible labour. It’s all around us, but do you know much about it?

Unpaid work is household, care and domestic work that’s largely invisible, unvalued and unremunerated labour. And because gendered social norms construct women as caregivers and providers, the responsibility to complete this work usually falls on them (women primarily in cisgender, heterosexual relationships – but not strictly so). Invisible labour involves tasks that require time and effort – but you don’t get paid, or, more often than not, even recognised for them. It constrains women’s ability to take up paid work, focus on their wellbeing or be an active part of their community, and as a result, can really impact on their mental health. Truthfully, invisible labour has stripped people of time to themselves, and we’ll never really know the full extent of this loss.

Invisible labour is an equity issue. After generations of women typically running the home and being the primary caregiver (and the expectation being just so) the gender gap has finally started to shift. Women have increasingly begun to work outside the home, establishing their own careers and continuing to work after they have children. However, men haven’t matched this shift with a comparative increase in their unpaid work – women have simply increased their total working time, picking up the bulk of childcare and household duties when they get home from their ‘official’ work day (a term coined as “the second shift”).

The data shows us that - across the world - women shoulder a disproportionate share of unpaid care and domestic work, causing one of the biggest gender gaps between men and women

We know that every home and relationship is different and that gender roles vary. But the statistics show us that – across the world – women shoulder a disproportionate share of unpaid care and domestic work, causing one of the biggest gender gaps between men and women. We’re talking, on average, women dedicating 4 hours and 25 minutes daily to unpaid work – more than three times men’s average of 1 hour and 23 minutes. And the pandemic has only exacerbated this.

Overnight, homes became offices, childcare facilities and makeshift schools. It was mothers who largely stepped into these teaching and caring roles – at the expense of their anxiety​Workplace anxiety and work-related anxiety Web page Anxiety can be caused by issues inside or outside the workplace, and it's worth employers making efforts to look out for signs that an employee might need support. This page from Acas has a range of tips.Free By: Acas View resource levels and sleep​Sleep and mental health PDF This one-page PDF fact sheet from Unilever highlights some of the reasons why poor mental health and sleep deprivation are linked, and offers techniques for improving the amount and quality of your sleep.Free By: Unilever View resource– as they continued to work full time themselves. A UK study from the first covid-19 lockdown found that not only did women do about two thirds of the housework and childcare, but they were more likely than men to reduce working hours and adapt their work schedules as they spent more time on unpaid care.

There’s simply no time left to take care of you and to do the things that keep you mentally well

This balancing act has left workers feeling burnt out, stressed and overwhelmed – there’s simply no time left to take care of you and to do the things that keep you mentally well. Reports the world over are showing clear trends that women are experiencing higher levels of psychological stress than the year before the pandemic.

And it’s not just the invisible labour of parenting that women are facing – in the UK, up to 70% of all unpaid dementia carers are women, and female carers are more likely to help with the messier tasks – like bathing, dressing, using the toilet, and dealing with incontinence. Female carers also tend to receive less support than male carers, so they end up feeling more isolated and more likely to suffer from mental health conditions such as depression.

The mental load

The mental load is invisible. It’s the emotion attached to unpaid labour – the worries and anxieties associated with all these tasks. It’s a continuous, enduring check-list in our minds – the thinking, planning and worrying, and delegating tasks to other people in the household. And the truth is, women and mothers disproportionally carry this burden.

So, what’s the impact? Women wear multiple hats, and the mental load of this takes its toll. It’s likely that they’ll suppress certain emotions at work whilst they try their best to balance it all. And the risk to businesses? Well, highly skilled women workers may leave work altogether after having a family or to look after relatives, leaving organisations with skill gaps and high recruitment and training costs. And the women who remain in the workforce may be highly stressed – and less productive – from the strain of unpaid care commitments.

Employers can - and should - be authentic leaders, creating meaningful change for women and advancing towards a gender-just economy

The truth is, organisations have a responsibility to tackle invisible labour, and now is the time to take action. We all stand to gain by accelerating progress to a gender equitable world, breaking down barriers and gender stereotypes so future generations can live in a fairer society. This is a challenge. But employers can – and should – be authentic leaders, creating meaningful change for women and advancing towards a gender-just economy.

So, as an organisation, what can you do right now? It’s about shifting how we all think, challenging gender and societal norms, and creating a new culture. Recognise that different types of unpaid labour exist, the impact of the mental load, and ensure all people are involved in this conversation. Talk about gender inequality with your staff – engage men on how they can be allies, and keep that conversation going. Think holistically about your employees’ lives – engage with women to understand their time burdens, and how you can reduce stress around them. Improved support for families is a good place to start, allowing flexible working and setting up networks and communities internally for parents and carers to support one another. Take a look at your policies and see how you can lessen the strain of childcare, or care for others. 

When the time burden and mental load of invisible labour is lifted, women’s opportunities grow exponentially. So let’s take action – together we can.

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