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Mental health, Sex and gender

Women bear the brunt of unpaid labour - and it may be affecting their mental health

Review finds that unpaid labour is related to worse mental health among women, with effects less clear in men.

16 September 2022

By Emily Reynolds

We know that unpaid labour impacts millions of people across the world – and women tend to bear the brunt. In the UK alone, women carry out around 60% more unpaid work than men, spending more time on cooking, cleaning, and childcare. What we know less about, however, is the impact this work has on people’s mental health.

A new review in The Lancet Public Health by a team from the University of Melbourne explores the research conducted so far in this area. It finds that unpaid labour has a clearer negative impact on women’s mental health than men’s, suggesting that this gendered divide could be causing serious problems for women.

The team conducted a review of literature reporting associations between unpaid labour and mental health. Unpaid labour was defined as “housework, domestic work, childcare, other care, or a combination”, with volunteer work excluded from analysis. Studies were only eligible if participants were employed, in order to explore the additional strain unpaid labour places on people on top of their daily job, and only studies in which gender was differentiated were included in the review.

The paper included studies that measured mental health outcomes in terms of either participants’  symptoms or formal diagnoses, though studies with stress as their main outcome were excluded (although stress is linked to poor mental health, it is not considered a diagnosis in and of itself.) Overall, 19 studies were included with over 70,000 participants.

Of the nine studies that looked specifically at housework as a form of unpaid labour, six reported a relationship between increased housework and poor mental health in women (three found no association). For men, this number was lower: three studies reported this association, and six no association. Four of these studies also looked at childcare as a separate element of unpaid labour, but only one of these reported a link between increased childcare and poorer mental health (none reported a similar link in men).

Of the five studies that examined total unpaid labour, three looked at both genders and two women only. Of those looking at men and women, two found that unpaid labour was linked to worse mental health for women, but not men. Both studies exploring the impact just on women found a link between unpaid labour and poorer mental health.

While most of the studies were cross-sectional, two used a longitudinal design to explore the relationship between unpaid labour and mental health at a later time point, in order to track the relationship over time. Both of these only included women participants. And, following the pattern from the other studies, both reported worse mental health the longer women spent engaging in unpaid labour.

So, overall, the review suggests that unpaid labour is associated with worse mental health for employed women. This is unsurprising, considering what we already know about women doing significantly more unpaid labour. How people respond to different kinds of unpaid labour is also relevant here – the studies found that men were doing unpaid labour, but did not experience the same negative impact on their mental health. The team points out that women’s unpaid labour is frequently overlooked, while men get actively praised for doing things like childcare or housework. This could partly explain the differences in mental health outcomes.

The team also suggests that policies should be put into place to better spread the division of labour – for instance more equal parental leave, flexible working arrangements, and the promotion of paternal involvement in childcare. However, there will also be more immaterial cultural shifts that need to happen: social and interpersonal expectations that women perform certain tasks are not going to change overnight. Unpaid work is also frequently unrecognised, so ensuring that everyone is aware of the toll of unpaid labour is also crucial.

Future research could explore the differences between various kinds of unpaid work – cleaning, caring, childcare may all have different effects on people’s mental health, and may have different impacts based on gender.