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The unseen work taking a toll on women of all ages

Invisible work includes tasks to be done physically as well as the mental load of planning. And it all falls to women

Invisible workload can be divided into five broad categories: remembering, planning, scheduling, hosting, and following up. (Pexels)

By Sonali Gupta

LAST PUBLISHED 14.10.2023  |  01:00 PM IST

A 43-year-old female client tells me: “I am always exhausted. As a senior corporate professional, I absolutely enjoy my work; it’s demanding but it keeps me going. The last few years have been challenging but it’s the mental load that gets to me, house chores, setting up play dates, remembering dentist appointments for our children, buying gifts for parties, weekly meal menus, keeping track of whether all bills are paid. It’s never-ending. I have tried telling my husband to do some of these chores but I need to remind him a few times before they get done. The worst bit is that even at work, all care responsibilities are shouldered by me, more than my male counterparts. I feel I am inching towards burnout."

This is a theme I hear consistently from women during therapy sessions. Those who have children, elderly parents or pets feel that the care responsibilities—whether it’s vaccinations, scheduling and remembering appointments or accompanying them physically—are generally performed by them. All these tasks take the form of “invisible workload" for women. Often, such tasks get done only because women keep track. Yet, there is no recognition, validation or even acknowledgment, of how much time and energy these take up daily.

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Invisible workload includes tasks that are to be done physically; then there is the mental load of remembering and planning. The invisible workload can be divided into five broad categories: remembering, planning, scheduling, hosting, and following up. Think about it, remembering important dates, planning lunches, parties, being present for parent-teacher meetings, investing energy and time to train the staff—it’s all usually done by women.

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As a 27-year-old client mentioned: “If my boyfriend is scheduled to take our pet to the vet, I still have to block his calendar and send him a reminder because there is a high possibility that if I don’t do this, he will miss it. The other day, we fought over this as I told him he needs to get better at it."

Moreover, in an Indian set-up, the task of relationship management generally falls on women: keeping in touch with relatives, friends, working towards strengthening those ties, whether for her own sake, her partner or children. While women in the 30s-40s age group bring this up consistently, even women in their mid- to late-20s talk about this “invisible workload" and say their male siblings or partners don’t engage in these chores.

This workload takes a toll on women across age groups. It impacts their ability to be present, it constantly makes them feel their task list is not finished, and it eats into their personal and professional lives. Women often feel it impacts their downtime and opportunities for leisure. They tell me how their weekend, even if spent at home, is far from relaxing as they are attending to tasks.

Women often feel invisible work impacts their downtime and opportunities for leisure. (Unsplash)

Research shows the link between these tasks and mental fatigue, feelings of being overwhelmed, and burnout—a huge factor that makes it hard for women to continue working as they care for children, parents and in-laws.

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The problem is complex, and the answers need to come from a systemic level. Our narratives of gender-based roles need to be re-examined. We need to communicate openly about these responsibilities and ensure the burden doesn’t fall solely on women.

The representation of women and men in media needs to be mindful, breaking existing stereotypes and offering more egalitarian perspectives when it comes to sharing invisible workload.

Our workspaces need not just better policies but also an examination of how implicitly women play these roles even in the workspace—so that efforts can be made to see how workplaces can provide psychological safety for women.

Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.