laundry on a clothesline

The Mental Toll of Invisible Labor

By Marisa Cohen
August 04, 2022

Jane Rivkin has always felt like she has two full-time jobs—though she only gets paid or acknowledged for one. “When I came to America in the 1990s with my family, I was the only one who spoke English,” the Ukraine-born software developer says. In addition to her schoolwork, Rivkin recalls, “I had to do everything for my parents: make appointments, talk to the doctor, arrange their social schedule.”

When she started a family of her own, this “invisible work” only increased. “It’s exhausting and never-ending,” Rivkin says of handling the logistics and emotional support for her husband and two children.

Whether you’re the person who lies awake mentally making out the grocery list, the office staffer who orders the cupcakes whenever there’s a birthday, or the friend whom everyone counts on to make the dinner reservations, you’re toiling at what researchers have long recognized as “invisible labor.”

In broad terms, invisible labor is any kind of work that you do domestically, in the workplace, or in the community, that you don’t get paid for and that other people take for granted. “It’s the kind of labor that we don't even necessarily see taking place,” says Haley Swenson, Ph.D., the deputy director of the Better Life Lab at New America.

Labor of the Mind

While much invisible labor can be physically taxing—cleaning up after the dog when the kids have gone to bed—it’s often the emotional and mental work that can be the most draining.

“Sometimes invisible labor is invisible precisely because it's taking place literally inside your head,” Swenson says. “It’s those sleepless nights thinking, ‘What am I going to do about childcare this summer?’” she says. “It drains us of energy—the commitment of mental resources there means we can’t put them someplace else.”

And though this kind of domestic labor can fall on anyone in the family, most often it’s women who bear the brunt, according to a recent study in the journal Sex Roles, which found that mothers take on the majority of the work of not only organizing schedules and maintaining order in the home but also shoring up their children’s emotional needs, which can be the most exhausting labor of all.

The study also found that, even in cases where the couple or family divides household chores, it usually falls on one person to be mentally “in charge,” like restocking the cleaning supplies or calling the plumber.

Invisible Labor Outside the Home

Even in a space where you’re actually getting paid for your work, invisible labor can be present. There’s always one person who makes sure the office kitchen is tidy, or who buys the card and makes sure everyone signs it when there’s a birthday/going-away/new baby.

“That work isn’t included in the job description, but your co-workers rely on you for it,” Swenson says. And needless to say, the more time and energy you’re spending on these kinds of tasks, the less you’re spending on the work that actually leads to raises and promotions.

Our social lives aren’t immune to the encroachment of invisible labor. “My friends love to go to Broadway shows together, and I’m always the one who has to organize,” says Delilah Mason,* a technical writer. “I’m trying to find a date that works for six people, running to the box office to find the best seats, and then reminding the group to pay me back for their ticket. It’s exhausting.”

The Cost of Invisible Labor

The burden of invisible labor can lead to physical breakdowns (it’s well studied how stress affects the body, says Swenson) and to an unseen drain on emotional and mental resources. “Time you spend doing these tasks is time you're not spending on other things,” Swenson says. “You don’t have the time to just sit and read a book, take care of yourself socially, emotionally, or psychologically without thinking about everyone else.”

Invisible labor can also cause tension in your relationships, she adds. “If you’re the person in your friend group who’s always looking up and booking the Airbnb for the group getaway, you’ve already used up your energy planning it, but they’re the ones having all the fun.”

Steps to Balance the Load

The first step in easing the invisible labor burden is to make the invisible visible. “You have to tell people that it’s going on, and the fact that its going on matters,” says Swenson.

How you shine a light on your invisible labor depends on where it takes place: in your home, at work, or among friends.

At Home: Make a Mental Load Swear Jar

In one exercise, developed by the Better Life Labs team, the family is encouraged to decide on a money value for each invisible mental task a family member does, such as 25 cents for remembering to buy snacks for the soccer team, 50 cents for organizing the carpool schedule, $1 for handling the Thanksgiving plans.

Then, put the money in a jar where everyone else can see it. “The idea is that if people can see just how much others are doing in the service of the household, it might become more appreciated,” Swenson says.

At Work: Put It on Paper

In addition to bringing up the “soft tasks” at work at your next planning meeting, Swenson suggests using the same kinds of chore charts that work with children. “For things like cleaning up the break room, instead of posting a passive-aggressive sign, like ‘Clean your OWN dishes,’ put a system in place,” she suggests.

That can mean posting a schedule of who is responsible for cleaning the break room each day, or coming up with a rotating system for party planning, such as whoever had the last birthday has to plan the next celebration. “That way, it becomes social accountability, so no one has to feel like the office nag to get it done,” she says.

With Friends: Call a Meeting

“If you’re the friend who’s always making the plans, you need to have a group conversation,” Swenson suggests. Before a big event, write up a list of tasks. “This takes what's going to happen in your head and puts it out in front of the room,” says Swenson. “Say, ‘Hey, guys, here's what needs to be done. I'm going to look at hotels. Who would like to take care of transportation and food?’”

At first, this may take more time than just doing it yourself. But that’s a small price to pay for setting a precedent of sharing the load.

*Name has been changed

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