Struggling To Get Ahead At Work? Your Mental Load Might Be Holding You Back
Working mothers may be on the rise in organizations but they continue to bear a disproportionate amount of household and parenting responsibilities. The 2017 Modern Family Index report commissioned by Bright Horizons found that mothers who are the primary breadwinners in married households are three times more likely than working fathers (who are primary breadwinners) to manage children’s schedules.
“Women bear today the majority of that mental load. Working mothers are coming to work, not just having to do their professional jobs but they have to take care of a range of other things like ballet lessons, soccer practice and doctors’ appointments,” says Bright Horizon’s Chief Human Resources Officer, Maribeth Bearfield.
The mental load caused from overseeing all of this activity increases stress levels, which in turn limits productivity and long-term career success. “The findings paint a clear picture not just of overburdened women but of modern families bumping up against outdated workplace cultures, which have failed to keep up with women’s professional strides,” says Bearfield.
In this interview, Bearfield shares why the mental load is a ‘very real issue’ and what workplaces can do to support women and men with managing it.
Michelle King: Why is the mental load such a critical issue for women?
Maribeth Bearfield: While women are trying to advance their careers, they are still expected to be the leaders of the household. They are the ones who are taking on the family and household responsibilities. The study found that 86 percent of women are still handling all primary responsibilities. The vast majority of women also feel that it is their responsibility to stay on top of their children’s schedule. So, while women are holding similar jobs as men, they are being asked to do so much more outside of the workplace. The interesting thing is that year over year mental load has actually increased for women, not decreased.
King: Why should employers take initiatives to support women with this?
Bearfield: Women are coming to work with a greater burden that we as employers need to help take care of. Mental load truly has an impact on productivity. Employees are stressed. The average person has over 150 undone tasks on their mind at any given time.When the mind is trying to resolve all of these tasks and remember all of the things that we need to do, this increases stress. When you are less focused you are less productive. This then has an impact on your career growth. Another impact to employers is absenteeism – which is costing organizations billions of dollars.
King: Does this have a significant impact on advancing women into senior leadership roles?
Bearfield: If you are a working mother and you have all of this going on, what is going to give? It is not going to be your children or your family. That is your number one priority. When this makes women less productive, it is less likely they will be next in line for a promotion. Or next in line chosen for opportunities. Women have to take a step back because of the mental load so I think it truly does have an impact.
There are also industries that simply do not accept that you might have to leave early for your child’s parent teacher conference. Those become very career limiting moments. These employers go ‘well, I just can’t count on them’. This is true though for both men and women.
King: That is a great point. Can you share more on the impact of mental load on men?
Bearfield: Our study found that there is also a stigma for men who want to be stronger caregivers in the family. If they want to take some of this burden off their wives, they feel it is frowned upon by colleagues. Or they have felt as though their employers do not look positively on this. So, they don’t feel like they can say, ‘I need to leave early to do this for my family.’
King: What can employers do to support men and women with this?
Bearfield: It is really a bit of everything. So, things like mentoring whereby seasoned employees sponsor newer employees with young families to help them figure out how to make the balance work. There are also programs for mothers, (before and after having a baby) to support them with the transition. The other is supporting employees with childcare. Supporting working mothers by having their child in the same building is really an unbelievable service, one which we provide here at Bright Horizons.
As employers or even colleagues, it is really about supporting and understanding one another. So, share what worked for you and what you think might help others at work. Ultimately though it is about employers understanding that parents need opportunities to undertake flexible work. When you provide that, employees will be more productive. This is about work/life integration – not balance.
Michelle King is a leading global gender equality expert, with a focus on advancing women in the changing world of work. To stay up to date follow Michelle @michpking.