Unpaid and unequal: women’s extra workload affects mental wellbeing

Today is Day 5 of the Jean Hailes Women’s Health Week 2022, an initiative dedicated to all women across Australia to make good health a priority.

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Women do the bulk of unpaid domestic work globally and the added burden has an impact on their mental health – but surprisingly there’s little independent empirical research about this.

Now, there is data, which shows the double burden of paid and unpaid work results in increased depressive or psychological distress for women as unpaid labour increases.

Researchers at the University of Melbourne reviewed the evidence for the gendered nature of unpaid work and consequences for mental health among employed adults, publishing their results in Lancet Public Health.

Public health researcher and lead author, Jen Ervin, says the research showed women were uniformly doing more unpaid work across every geographical and time setting.

“What our review tells us is that, in addition to the economic penalty women experience carrying out most of the world’s unpaid labour load, there is a troubling mental health cost as well,” she says. 

While further research is needed, Ervin says the most widely acknowledged explanation for the impact on mental health is that the combined paid and unpaid workload triggers stress-related pathways. It also reduces time for activities known to be protective for mental health such as sleep, leisure and physical activity.

The findings won’t come as a surprise to many, especially women, she says.

Indeed. The study follows census data confirming (once again) that Australian women do more hours of unpaid housework than men. And another report this week commissioned by Chief Executive Women indicating caring responsibilities in the pandemic held back progress on women’s workforce participation and leadership.

For what seems like an intractable problem, what can be done to change things?

Ervin says, “we believe that policies such as universal childcare and normalising flexible working arrangements and extended paternity leave for men can help in shifting the dial and driving greater gender equality in the division of unpaid labour and unpaid care.

“Some of these measures will also aid and facilitate the harder task of shifting some of the outdated attitudes and beliefs around labour division.”

It’s important to note many men are taking a more active role in childcare and housework. But men can be limited in doing so by factors such as inflexible workplace arrangements or social stigma, she says.

The University of Melbourne research focussed on employed adults, the ‘double burden’ effect of combining paid work with unpaid work, and how this subsequently creates issues of overload and time poverty. It found substantial gender differences.

Of the 14 studies reviewed for the article – totalling more than 66,800 participants worldwide – five examined unpaid labour (inclusive of care), nine examined housework time and, of these, four also examined childcare.

Overall, in 11 of the 14 studies, women self-reported increased depressive or psychological distress symptoms with increasing unpaid labour demands. For men, only three out of a possible 12 studies reported any negative association.

An aspect not captured in the current review, Ervin says, is the difference in the gendered allocation of household tasks. For example, men often do less-time-sensitive outdoor or maintenance tasks such as mowing the lawn or cleaning the gutters.  These jobs aren’t as time-pressured as feeding a hungry child or driving them to an appointment.

And while more difficult to measure, other research shows women are also often carrying more of the mental load of household labour.

Unfortunately, Australia is lagging behind many other countries when it comes to key gender equality indicators such as unpaid labour division, Ervin says.

Read more: Aiming for a gender-equal world

This week a report commissioned by Chief Executive Women drew attention to the lack of progress made by Australia’s top companies in appointing women to leadership roles. The report, prepared by management consultants Bain & Company, says 73% of executive roles in ASX300 companies are held by men, and 85% of line management roles. The report says COVID-19 set back women’s workforce participation, as they took on the bulk of the increased caring responsibilities.

This is consistent with findings from other University of Melbourne research showing the “catastrophic” impact of the pandemic on women’s lives, especially for mothers. Restrictions such as school closures and remote learning added to the domestic workload for everyone, but the gender gap remained. Women, more often than men, reduced their paid work to meet the increased demands.

The Murdoch Children’s Research Institute also reported maternal wellbeing was profoundly impacted by the pandemic, finding a third of women experienced clinically significant mental health problems during Victoria’s second lockdown, with ongoing fatigue and parenting stress.

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