Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

The toll unpaid labor takes on women’s health, wellbeing

Sep 8, 2022 | Research, Gender, Parenting, Fathering, Domestic Load, Family, Mothering, Feature

Written by Tania King and Jen Ervin

How would you describe what your research is about in a nutshell to someone who doesn’t know anything about it? 

We conducted a systematic review, which means we gathered all the existing research on unpaid labour and mental health according to tight criteria to see what impact (if any) higher unpaid labour time had on working men and women. Importantly, our review focussed on employed adults, given we were interested in the “double burden” effect of combining paid work with unpaid work and how this subsequently creates issues of role overload and time poverty.

Our search of six databases identified a total of 6008 records, and following a rigorous screening process, we ended up with 19 studies (and some 70,000 participants) found eligible for inclusion in our review.

While we’re on the topic, what is unpaid labour?

There is no universally recognised term or definition for unpaid labour (also referred to as unpaid work, unpaid care work, domestic labour or household labour), but it is considered broadly inclusive of all responsibilities and tasks done to maintain a household and its family members without any explicit monetary compensation.

So childcare is a big one, and relatedly so is care for people with disability, health condition or who are elderly. But it also includes domestic work like laundry, food preparation, cleaning, running errands and outdoor tasks. 

Certainly, in our review, we found there was a lot of variation in how unpaid labour was conceptualised and measured. For example, some studies measured unpaid labour in its totality – that being all household work inclusive of all types of care, whilst others solely examined housework, and others examined housework and childcare domains separately.  

Why does it matter that we understand more about unpaid labour? 

Unpaid labour is a daily part of most people’s lives, none more so than for women. In fact, billions of hours are spent in unpaid labour across the globe every day, a burden we know that is disproportionally shouldered by women.

We know that women are routinely trading off paid work hours to meet their disproportionately high unpaid labour responsibilities – of which their unequal caring responsibilities is a significant component.  And it is well established that this significantly impacts women’s labour force participation and their economic security, having important implications for gender equity. In fact, women’s disproportionate burden of unpaid labour is a big roadblock to gender equality.

Importantly, the health impacts of unpaid labour have been largely unexplored.  Particularly in comparison to paid work, the effect of unpaid labour on mental health is an under-researched area. 

This review goes someway to addressing this gap.  Our review tells us that, in addition to paid workforce penalties that women experience for carrying high unpaid labour load, there is a troubling mental health cost as well.

When it comes to unpaid labour…what’s the gender split? Who does it and has it changed in the pandemic? 

Globally, women and girls are primarily responsible for their household’s unpaid labour;  women from all regions of the world spend an average of 3-6 hours/day on unpaid work, whilst men contribute 0.5-2 hours.

In Australia, women do about twice the amount of housework and childcare compared to men, contributing to a 16-hour gap/week in total unpaid labour tasks.

While in high-income countries women are doing less unpaid labour than historically was the case, this is not so much because men are doing substantially more, but rather because housework is more likely to be outsourced (when resources allow) and because women are “putting up” with messier/less clean homes.

Certainly,  COVID highlighted and amplified of gender gap in the division of unpaid labour with women in Australia and across the globe. They shouldered more of the increase in unpaid work – including supervising children learning remotely.  While unpaid labour increased for both women and men as result of the pandemic, in Australia, women took on an extra hour each day more than men in, on top of their existing heavier load. 

Moreover, women, particularly mothers of young or school-aged children, were more likely than men to reduce their paid work hours, drop out of the labour market, or take hits to their productivity at work during COVID-19. So, unfortunately in many ways COVID has stalled or in some instances reversed some of the hard-won gains in GE. However, all is not lost.

Given the pandemic has temporarily reshaped our existing workplace structures and systems, as well as our domestic and home lives, in many ways, it has the potential to recalibrate how work and care are operationalised in the long term – pushing the case for gender-neutral policies – leading to a healthier and more equitable society.

Please also explain the split between paid and unpaid work. Why do you describe this as a “double burden”? 

Crucially, women everywhere combine their unpaid work with paid employment, such that in most OECD countries, women spend more total time on paid and unpaid work than men do. Importantly, this creates a “double burden” whereby women are combining significant paid working hours with a substantive unpaid labour time on any given “work” day.

This concept was first coined the “second shift” by Hochschild in 1989 who investigated and portrayed the double burden experienced by late-20th-century employed mothers, describing the labour performed at home in addition to the paid work performed in the formal sector.

How does this impact women’s 1. Overall health and 2. Mental health? 

Unpaid labour, and specifically the double burden effect of combining unpaid labour with paid work, has implications for women’s health and wellbeing.

The impact of unpaid labour on overall health is an even more under-researched are than that of mental health (which was the focus of our review).  As an aside, a 2021 systematic review reported positive associations between gender equality (but not unpaid labour per se) and a number of different health outcomes, including mortality, mental health, morbidity, alcohol consumption, and intimate partner violence in high-income countries.

Shifting focus back to our review, we found that in employed women, increasing unpaid labour was associated with poorer mental health.  As per the norm for population-based studies, most of the associated mental health concerns in these studies were self-reported – this is when a person provides information about themselves through validated survey measures to identify things like depression and psychological distress or wellbeing.

At present, the mechanisms by which unpaid labour might affect mental health are not well established. It is probable that these mechanisms vary depending on the social and cultural norms of individual populations, and across the different domains of unpaid labour.  Nonetheless, the most widely acknowledged explanation considers role strain theory, whereby combing paid work and a high unpaid workload increases so-called role conflict and role overload, which triggers stress-related pathways and thereby can affect psychological wellbeing.

Time scarcity theory is also really important and relevant here – where time poverty and rushing (due to combining unpaid and paid work) negatively affects mental health and wellbeing.  Ultimately, time is a resource for health – everyone only has 24 hours in every day.

If one works a full paid workday and has significant unpaid labour demands book casing this, this erodes time left for things that are protective for mental health such as sleep, leisure and physical activity.

It is also being increasingly recognised that women carry the greater mental load of household labour; whilst mental load is very difficult to measure, it is feasible that one unpaid hour is denser or more impactful for women than for men, and therefore might not be directly comparable.

Melbourne University researchers Jen Ervin (left) and Dr Tania King say it’s not just how much unpaid labour women do in the home, it’s also about the type of unpaid tasks women regularly do, compared to those men do. Picture: Supplied

If you think not just about individual women having these terrible mental health impacts, but the overall all impact of thousands of women across the countryand the globe suffering this type of overwork and burnout, what’s the society-wide impact (including economically)? 

Society wide, we are losing significant human capital. The mental health impacts might not have a massive impact at an individual level, but when you look across the population, these effects may be pushing a lot of women into psychological distress and curtailing their quality of life. It may also mean that women accept more insecure or precarious jobs to enable them to combine their paid and unpaid work, often with lower pay and poorer conditions.

This juggle sometimes becomes untenable for a lot of women, forcing many to exit the workforce, which has clear implications in terms of their economic security across the life course. This loss of women from the workforce is a significant loss for society. The Australian Council of Trade Unions recently estimated that enabling women to participate in the workforce at the same rate as men would deliver $111 billion to the Australian economy.

Sometimes the issue of women’s overwork seems intractable. What solutions are there? 

Policies such as universal childcare and normalising flexible working arrangements and extended paternity leave for men can help in shifting the dial and driving greater gender equality in the division of unpaid labour and unpaid care. Importantly, however, we need to be careful about policies that only target women as this may reinforce gender inequalities.

  • Universal childcare – one of the biggest things that comes up time and again with respect to women and paid workforce participation is the need for low-cost accessible quality childcare. This is a big gap in the current Australian context – particularly given universal childcare can be a very impactful lever.  For example, we know that the 5 OECD countries boasting the highest % of working mothers all provide nationally subsidised integrated quality childcare programs (Netherlands, Sweden, Iceland, Slovenia & Denmark).
  • Increased flexibility and changed norms around men’s work – this is needed both on the home front and within workplaces… men are not only not offered the same flexibility offered to women but there exists a flexibility stigma for men in the workplace, and men can suffer penalties (as women do) for taking flexible options.  We need to dismantle norms around what it means to be an ideal worker and highlight the importance of gender-neutral approaches to leave and flexible working – accommodating how work integrates with home life for both women and men. This is fundamental to driver greater gender equality.
  • Extended paternity leave – another consideration is non-transferable parental leave entitlements with income replacement for both fathers and mothers, as is available in some northern European countries. In Norway, for example – of the combined total of 49 weeks of fully compensated parental leave that parents are entitled to, a proportion of non-transferable leave is specifically assigned to each parent. It is a “use-it or lose-it approach” … and has led to a substantial upswing in the number of fathers taking parental leave – 90% of Fathers in Norway Take Parental Leave. This then has the knock-on effect of normative acceptance at both the individual and workplace levels which then reinforces and perpetuates men both taking up and expecting to utilise this leave.

Is there anything else you want to say? 

Another important point relating to the difference between men and women and unpaid labour pertains to the gendered divisions in the type of unpaid labour or household tasks. For example, we know that men commonly do the less time-sensitive jobs within the household, such as outdoor or maintenance tasks.

These are referred to in the literature as high-schedule-control tasks …as one has more control over when one undertakes this type of unpaid labour work.  A good example is that you can delay mowing the lawn or cleaning the gutters until the weekend for instance when you are less time-pressured, whereas you cannot delay feeding a hungry child or driving a dependant to a medical appointment.

Outdoor tasks are also theorised to not only be less time-sensitive but may also be more enjoyable and possibly protective than other types of household work.  What is also important to note is that we know that many men are taking a more active role in childcare and housework, and we know that many want to be playing a more active role in raising their children but can’t due to inflexible workplace arrangements or as mentioned above, the flexibility stigma.

And so, it is really important that we recognise that when it comes to supporting women in this arena, workplaces really need to be supporting men to be able to take time off or work flexibly to care for children. This is fundamental to gender equality.


  • Feature image is a stock photo.

Dr Tania King, ARC DECRA and Dame Kate Campbell Senior Research Fellow, is located at The University of Melbourne in Centre for Health Equity, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health.

Jen Ervin is a Research Assistant and PhD candidate at The University of Melbourne in Centre for Health Equity, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health.

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