Who Shoulders the Invisible Family Load?

Back view of a woman carrying many bags in her hands, the concept of Carrying a Burden and Overburdened, created with Generative AI technology

It goes beyond simple cleaning: Someone must schedule play dates for the kids, stay on top of school updates, and remember that the family will soon be out of eggs. These responsibilities are well-known, but rarely studied. It’s widely agreed that they are real work, and that they are largely unappreciated. But what do we call this kind of work, and who shoulders most of the load – men or women?

In “Who’s Remembering to Buy the Eggs? The Meaning, Measurement, and Implications of Invisible Family Load,” published in May in the Journal of Business and Psychology, Culverhouse’s Drs. Maura J. Mills, Russell A. Matthews, and Marilyn V. Whitman – along with their coauthors Dr. Julie Holliday Wayne (project lead; Wake Forest University) and recent UA doctoral graduate Dr. Yi-Ren Wang (Asia School of Business) – tackled this thorny topic. Specifically, they sought to propose a common label and definition for the construct– invisible family load, or the managerial, cognitive, and emotional tasks involved in keeping a family running–develop a validated measure to assess it, and then deploy it to determine the relationships between invisible family load and employee health and well-being.

After several waves of data collection, the researchers found:

  1. In addition to taking on most of the housework and childcare, women shoulder the lion’s share of the invisible family load as well.
  2. The emotional labor of presiding over a home can be psychologically draining, with significant negative effects on things like family-to-work conflict, sleep problems, family and job exhaustion, and lower life and family satisfaction.
  3. But depending on the type of task, taking on certain aspects of the invisible family load isn’t necessarily always a bad thing. Those who engage in managerial tasks like scheduling children’s playdates might enjoy greater family-work enrichment, and those who engage in cognitive tasks like remembering the family is running out of eggs, may enjoy greater satisfaction in work or family – even greater job performance.

The research provides a foundation for future study in this area, which could lead to better understanding of this work. With time, research like this has the potential to help partners and families distribute the invisible family load more fairly.

“The invisible family load is such a huge burden quietly borne by so many, and its effects are far-reaching,” Mills said. “I hope our paper and measure help facilitate more research on this critical issue.”

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