Story at a glance
- Around the world, women complete a disproportionate amount of unpaid work compared with men.
- A new review details the toll unpaid work takes on women’s mental health.
- Authors stress the importance of policy changes to address this problem, including implementation of universal child care and flexible work hours for men.
Employed women around the world disproportionately spend hours on unpaid labor compared to men — and the underrecognized work takes a toll on their mental health.
That’s according to a new review published this month in The Lancet Public Health. The report comes as unpaid labor like caregiving and house work has increasingly fallen on women during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Analyzing more than a dozen studies of thousands of participants from around the world, researchers found that women reported poorer mental health when unpaid labor demands increased. At the same time, researchers found just three studies of men that detailed any negative association.
The review also “confirms persistent inequities in the division of unpaid work,” authors wrote, adding findings suggest these inequities “expose women to greater risk of poorer mental health than men.”
Although there is no universally recognized definition of unpaid labor, it is typically inclusive of “of all responsibilities and tasks done to maintain a household and its family members without any explicit monetary compensation,” authors explained. These could include cooking, cleaning and caring for children and the elderly.
Women also experience economic penalties, in addition to a hit to their mental health, for taking on more unpaid labor. Regardless of where studies took place or at what time, authors noted women completed more unpaid labor than men in every investigation assessed. More than 35 countries were reflected in the review.
“Substantive policy levers, such as universal childcare and normalizing flexible working arrangements for men, are urgently required to start shifting this normative position,” they wrote.
“This double burden of paid and unpaid work exposes women to greater risk for overload, time poverty and poorer mental health,” explained lead study author Jen Ervin of the University of Melbourne in a press release. “Crucially, women are also routinely trading off paid work hours to meet their disproportionally high unpaid labor responsibilities.”
The findings underscore the need for greater equity in the division of unpaid labor, she stressed, while changes that enable men to take on their equal share could help improve women’s mental health.
Because included studies differed in how they were carried out, more longitudinal research is needed to draw more robust conclusions about the effect of unpaid labor on mental health, authors concluded.
More consistent methods of measuring and defining unpaid labor are also warranted, along with studies differentiating total unpaid labor, child care and housework.