Invisible labor, a term that comes from a 1987 article about “invisible work” by sociologist Arlene Daniels, refers to unpaid work that goes unnoticed, unacknowledged, and thus, unregulated. It’s no secret that the majority of domestic work has fallen on women’s shoulders in the US, and in many other countries, with the pandemic only exacerbating this problem.
Global studies also show that when women are paid for their work, a country’s economy thrives and the GDP increases. So why does invisible labor continue despite our advancements, and the evidence to show benefits for the contrary? While there is a need for deeper discussion about ingrained gender inequality, the impact of invisible labor on women’s mental health is also crucial to examine.
According to research from 2021, an unequal burden can take a toll on mental health and well-being on many women, especially mothers. Studies have shown that the unequal division of labor in the home (primarily physical housework) is associated with women’s psychological distress, depression, role overload, and even poor cardiovascular health.
Women and Mental Health
Dealing with mental health is a long and tough journey for everyone. Still, there are stigmas surrounding mental health that prevent people from opening up about it or seeking treatment. PIA’s blog piece on the state of mental health in the US discusses how some people fear losing their jobs if they look for clinical help, and how this stigma is sometimes based on representations of mental disorders in the media.
Additionally, this issue is compounded by the growing phenomenon that women’s health concerns are often dismissed or routinely ignored by the medical system. In fact, disorders like stress, extreme fatigue, and anxiety are sometimes directly linked to women’s expected role in society and the pressure they endure because of it. Invisible labor is a materialization of this.
Invisible Labor: Physical Chores and Mental Load
Invisible labor describes a type of work that is taken for granted and not paid for, and it is usually used to designate the labor involved in household management.
Invisible labor refers not only to physical chores like cooking, cleaning, or childcare but also to the concept of mental or emotional load. This cognitive dimension of household labor describes the need for a perpetual mental awareness of “what needs to be done”, and it ranges from remembering your child’s soccer practice dates to constantly keeping a mental grocery shopping list.
In heterosexual relationships, both these domestic duties and the “worry work” surrounding them often fall on women’s shoulders. This is due to the social assumption that women are naturally better at tasks involving nurturing and caregiving than men. Of course, there isn’t any scientific reasoning to back this up, so women are expected by default to manage their household alone – and, contrary to men, they’re also judged if they fail to do so, as highlighted by Slate.
Organizing and managing are paid jobs, so why should women be expected to do them for free in their households? And what are the consequences of this?
Gender Mental Health Gap: Why This Matters
In addition to women being seldom acknowledged for their invisible labor, we need to consider its consequences. This pressure and responsibility are prone to cause mental health issues such as stress, anxiety, and extreme fatigue – often referred to as female burnout.
While men of course also struggle with mental health, invisible labor is almost always a problem for women specifically. A study reported by The Guardian shows that women do around 65% of their physical household work, which explains the gender mental health gap between men and women deriving from this unpaid domestic labor.
Although in recent years, men seem to be more present in household management, women still bear the constant worry of “making sure it gets done”. This is an extremely important issue we need to address as a society to protect women’s mental health from the physical and emotional toll of invisible labor.