Exhausted beyond words? Maybe it’s time to shed some mental load.

Tuesday 19th December, 2017

Sophie in Finance's birthday is next week, I will get a cake on the way in after dropping the kids off, but I need to send someone to get a card this week, so we can circulate it. Is there enough fruit for the week, are we running out of coffee pods… when were the sheets last washed? We need a gift for the party, find a new gym, organise the Easter holidays, take one child to soccer, one to swimming, both need the dentist…. I have a client meeting first thing tomorrow.  And Christmas!!!

Do you know what the above is? It's mental workload. 

Chances are it sounds very familiar to you. Even as you read this, you are probably adding a few more things to your mental to-do list, or you are about to abandon this article to go and fulfil an action item. Stay with me. Please. The stuff can wait three minutes.

It's highly likely you know too well what mental workload is - you've just never been introduced to the phrase.

Mental workload is a term coined to describe the intellectual, mental, and emotional work we do daily, often without awareness, to manage our lives and the lives of those around us. It's a form of perpetual mental addition and calculation. Not in an almost manageable linear manner, but in a complex interacting web that includes, financial responsibilities, job obligations, household tasks, family and friend commitments, social networking, and our personal life. The list goes on.

It's all the things we carry, worry, organise, delegate, remember and respond to in our minds before any actual action. And it's exhausting.

I wish I could say that mental workload is the latest buzzword, the newest phrase-craze, but it's not.  As a terminology, mental workload has been around since the mid 90's - I was only introduced to this year via a great comic.* Like the seasonal flu, the concept makes a periodic appearance, but then fades away until it is rediscovered by yet another sufferer of the malaise.

The lack of lexicalisation and fluency in usage isn't because the phrase doesn't ring true - it does. You can't miss the you had me at hello moment when sufferers are introduced to it. I think the absence of common usage is because there is not enough discussion about the detrimental effects of mental workload and, importantly, how to alleviate it.


Australian census data** suggests that working mothers, who are also the primary caregiver, bear the brunt of the mental workload. But, of course, mental workload doesn’t just affect beleaguered ‘supermums’. It’s for anyone who feels the responsibility of managing the big picture as well as the daily necessities for others' wellbeing.

A recent article on the ABC site suggests a few ways to relieve the load.** Taking a break, reducing expectations and delegating will all help. Perhaps  one of the crucial things we should be doing more of is talking about mental workload.  

We are likely unaware of the extent the mental load affects us. Adverse outcomes – all chronic stress related – include; insomnia, recurring sickness, depression, weight fluctuations and mini breakdowns.  By understanding our mental workload, we may finally realise just how much we're taking on in our heads and start finding solutions. 

We all like to think we are coping stoically (note the word 'coping' and ask yourself, is coping how you want to live your life?), but there are no prizes for stoicism and plenty of downsides to burnout.

There is nothing wrong with admitting you feel fatigued; you feel overwhelmed, overworked and over-responsible. There is nothing wrong with admitting it's all too much. That's the first step to finding a solution that works for you.

The second step (and I might need to whisper this one) is admitting you are not the only competent person about. Thinking only you can do something is a little arrogant and more than a little wrong. Other people can do it too – maybe not in the way you would do it, maybe not so well, maybe a little later, maybe a little weirdly, but they can. Remember, different is not bad, different is just different, so take a deep breath and let it go.

I know, from experience, another strategy that really helps. Talk about it. By talking, we become more connected. Talking helps you know that you are not alone and need not suffer alone. Talking also helps to reduce the pressures we feel – pressure often (ironically) created by ourselves. 

Find someone who has been there, done that. Connect with and learn from them. Talk to your colleague who is saving for a house, working a 50-hour week, upskilling themselves outside of work, training at a gym to be a better part of a sports team etc. Ask them how they are managing.

Have that conversation with your partner to figure out a better way to share the workload; talk to work about flexible hours to help reduce the frenetic pace of your life. Maybe it’s stepping back from a position or asking for a team member to step up? Or maybe it's finding a way to really delegate. Again, trust another person to get it done.

Maybe we need to stop being accountable to the ridiculous expectations we hold ourselves to, lower them a little and get use to not being a constant superstar.

Maybe part of the solution is learning that some things really can wait or don’t need to be done at all.  Does Sophie really need a birthday card?


Stephanie Tucceri is a Research Associate at Evolve Intelligence. Read Stephanie's take on future-proofing your career here.