Why Unpaid Labor Is More Likely to Hurt Women’s Mental Health Than Men’s

It’s not unpaid labor itself that is problematic, research has found. Rather, it’s all the baggage around it — whether it conflicts with someone’s other responsibilities, like paid work, and whether it’s what someone wants to be doing.

Social scientists first named these issues more than half a century ago, and they’ve only become more acute since then, as more women have taken on paid work. “Role strain,” a term coined in 1960 by the sociologist William J. Goode, describes what happens when someone’s multiple roles interfere with their performance in others — when long hours of unpaid domestic work make people feel less able to do their paid work, or vice versa.

“Time poverty” — a term social scientists use to describe not having enough time to do work or leisure activities — particularly affects women with caregiving demands and people with inflexible, low-paid jobs. Time poverty contributes to declines in mental health, research shows, and also makes it harder to do things that improve health, like exercising, sleeping or nurturing friendships. One study found that while opposite-sex couples are increasingly likely to share responsibility for paid and unpaid work, men spend significantly more leisure time on weekends while women do more housework.

In some cases, parents who forgo paid work to care for children have been found to be happier about their unpaid labor — but not always. It depends if that aligned with what they wanted to do, or if they felt they had little choice about it.

“It’s not clear-cut that doing a larger amount or greater share of unpaid domestic work is negatively associated with physical or mental health per se,” said Daniel L. Carlson, a sociologist at the University of Utah, who studies the topic. “Mothers who have majority responsibility for those tasks but are also very conventional in their gender roles are OK with that responsibility. But women who believe more in egalitarianism having those responsibilities leads to poorer mental health.”

Part of that is discordant identities, he said: “I want to be this person, but I’m not.”

Tellingly, while same-sex couples tend to split primary responsibility for work and family once they have children, they tend to be happier with the division. Research has found that it’s because there is more often a conversation about who will do what, rather than an assumption based on gender.

The Lancet researchers said that drawing definitive conclusions from the 19 studies was difficult and that more research would be welcome. One hole in the academic research, which some newer studies are beginning to address, is a more detailed look at how different types of chores and responsibilities affect people.

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