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How Invisible Work at Home and on the Job Fuels Burnout

Unrecognized emotional and domestic labor worsens stress and mental health issues.

Key points

  • Burnout is described as "chronic workplace stress," but it's also fueled by hidden labor at home and work.
  • Unpaid caretaking roles, also called "mental load," contribute to extreme stress and chronic illness.
  • Invisible work, like household management and mentoring, often goes unpaid, leading to anxiety and burnout.
  • Women do most of the unpaid care work, leading to higher rates of burnout compared to men.
Damir Cudic / Getty Images
The majority of unrecognized domestic labor disproportionally falls on women.
Source: Damir Cudic / Getty Images

In 2019, the 10th edition of the International Classification of Diseases officially recognized “burnout” as a serious health condition resulting from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Importantly, the reference guide noted that burnout “refers specifically to a phenomena in the occupational context” and it “should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

However, the classification overlooks some significant aspects: researchers have documented that caretaking is a critical part of our invisible economy, contributing to burnout, and the invisible work in the workplace that isn’t “occupational” but often unrecognized emotional and domestic labor also leads to burnout. Healthcare professionals would be well advised to expand the understanding of burnout to extend beyond the workplace and include the effects of unpaid caretaking roles at home.

In fact, earlier this year, Kaiser Permanente, the healthcare network, published an article on its official website, recognizing a “heavy mental load,” or “mental labor,” as the “unpaid, almost invisible work involved in running a household and taking care of family members or loved ones.” It noted, “Over time, mental load can lead to extreme stress, strained relationships, and even chronic illness.”

Invisible work is everywhere and essential for our society to function. Our society has given little economic value to household management, “life admin,” or unpaid work on the job. Whether it is organizing the family schedule with everything from extracurricular activities to medical appointments and birthdays or mentoring new employees, people are often asked to do important tasks for which they are not recognized – or paid. Fulfilling these often-essential components of a functioning society cause new levels of anxiety and burnout, and we’d be better served as a society by recognizing that reality, rather than ignoring it.

Beyond "Occupational" Burnout

With historic rates of dual-earning households, Newsweek recently discussed the epidemic of "parental burnout" in the U.S., citing a new Ohio State University College of Nursing study that includes a “working parent burnout scale” and self-assessment. The weight of trying to meet societal expectations managing a family as well as a profession creates a burden often too heavy for people to handle and stay mentally healthy. This disproportionally falls on the shoulders of women, with University of Melbourne researchers recently analyzing the data from over 70,000 people surveyed worldwide in 19 studies and finding that women spend an estimated 4.5 hours caring for their families and homes daily versus 2.8 hours for men. According to Harvard Business Review this accounts for women doing 75% of the total unpaid care work inclusive of cooking, cleaning, organizing, scheduling, childcare, and elder care.

In an article in the medical journal The Lancet Public Health, the researchers wrote that the “potential effects of unpaid labor have largely been unexplored,” noting that “inequities in the division of unpaid labor expose women to greater risk of poorer mental health than men,” The researchers said something called “role strain theory,” where people experience “role conflict,” “role overload,” and “time poverty,” helps explain the negative impact of invisible work on mental health, triggering stress-related pathways that lead to depression, anxiety, and psychological distress.

To avoid burnout, we must consider how we can best balance our visible and invisible work.

How Can We Bring Value to Invisible Work?

We need to continue to have conversations that bring the invisible requirements of a healthy, successful society to the forefront. How can we bring recognition and value to these tasks?

In Canada, several groups recently called upon the Quebec government to make an official “National Invisible Work Day” to educate people on the significant impact the invisible work.

Marianne Pertuiset-Ferland, executive director of Association féministe d’éducation et d’action sociale, told a local TV reporter, “We should open discussions about it with our employers, with our friends, family and also open a dialogue, educate ourselves around this issue, and try to work towards better equality in our families.”

This drive to encourage discussions needs to fuel change that allows men and women to better share the invisible work that it takes to keep a family buzzing. NPR recently reported that Japan’s shrinking population is a “national emergency,” and, for some people, the answer is to “reform fatherhood,” including removing the invisible work that many men feel they must log at bars with colleagues after work and adding tasks that many men have been reluctant to do at home, like washing dishes and taking their children to the park. Additionally, as South Korea experiences the lowest fertility rates in the world, Korean change agents are defying gendered expectations with equal division of household duties and encouraging fathers to take parental leave. With only 5% of Korean men taking parental leave, four fathers founded the “Sunday Fathers Club,” a newsletter sent to about 1,800 subscribers to educate and promote more equitable households and help destigmatize men taking time off for childcare.

Lechatnoir / iStock
Invisible work includes organizing birthday celebrations.
Source: Lechatnoir / iStock

Corporations have a role to play in relieving burnout from invisible work as well. For years, the importance of a workplace’s culture has been linked to improved employee engagement, happiness, productivity, and the overall success of the organization. The activities to help people feel a sense of connectedness include mentoring, sponsorship, birthday celebrations, training and development, employee resource groups, and culture committees, which generally are tasked to volunteers with no direct tie to measured performance. This leads to a burden of invisible work that falls on individuals required to go above and beyond in the workplace.

From the home to the workplace, burnout is a reality exacerbated by the burden of invisible work. To create a healthier society, we have to value invisible work and remove gender inequities in delivering that work.


Emma S., Cameron, K. (2015). Proof That Positive Work Cultures Are More Productive. Harvard Business Review.

Ervin, J., Taouk, Y., Alfonzo, L. F., Hewitt, B., & King, T. (2022). Gender differences in the association between unpaid Labour and Mental Health in employed adults: A systematic review. The Lancet Public Health, 7(9).

Gawlick, K., Melnyk, B. (2024) Examining the Epidemic of Working Parental Burnout and Strategies to Help. The Ohio State University.

Mahajan, D., White, O., Madgavkar, A., & Krishnan, M. (2020, September 16). Don't let the pandemic set back gender equality. Harvard Business Review.

Seedat, S., Rondon, M. (2021). “Women's Wellbeing and the Burden of Unpaid Work,” National Library of Medicine, August 31, 2021.

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