The Third Shift – The Mental Load

Unpaid responsibility, supervision and job management in the household is typically named the third shift or the mental load. This invisible work is underrated, and there is an expectation that women will manage it rather than men. Women are thus lifting significantly more of their share of the third shift, the mental load, even when they are in a relationship (with a man) or work full time. Women take on the third shift and the mental load is placed on their shoulders, which discourages their labour force participation and career progression; causes stress, pressure and contributes to burnouts; and is a major bone of contention in heterosexual relationships.

This mental load which women tend to take on is a stumbling block to gender equality that requires further research and additional attention. While gender inequality in household chores remains, universal gender equality will not be achieved. Gender equality starts at home.

*Mental load can fall disproportionately on any person irrespective of gender or cohabitation form; however, the load falls most commonly on women in heterosexual relationships. Research shows that unequal division of labour is not as common amongst couples in homosexual relationships as is the case for heterosexual couples who live together.

  • The first shift involves a paid work in the labour market. The labour force participation of men is marginally higher than that of women, although with both groups reaching around or more than 80% participation in Iceland. Women are much more likely to take on part-time jobs than men, who are more likely than women to hold authority positions. For a long time, women were not expected to take on paid employment outside the home; instead, their purpose was to manage the household and care for the children. Even though the participation of women on the first shift is now more closely aligned to that of men, it still remains common that the women take care of the household and children, as well as other loved ones. Along comes the gendered expectation that women are more interested in this work or they have a greater capacity to carry it out compared to men.

  • The second shift describes the execution of unpaid daily or frequent household chores and tasks relating to caring for children and other members of the family or connecting with friends and relatives. The second shift directly relates to the execution of those tasks which more frequently fall on women’s shoulders than men’s. Those are repetitive tasks which require time, energy and attention.

    Examples of second-shift tasks:

    The home: cleaning, vacuuming, mopping, cooking, cleaning the refrigerator, doing the dishes, emptying the trash bins, doing the laundry, organising cupboards, fixing things, doing the grocery shopping, changing the bed sheets, watering the plants and depotting, taking care of the pets.

    The children: feeding, putting to bed, bathing, cutting the nails, washing the hair along with other tasks relating to the hygiene of the child, preparing lunch boxes, attending to a sick child, going through clothes, packing away outgrown clothes, preparing the day care bag, preparing sports gear, driving and picking up, giving medicine and vitamins, applying lotion to the child’s skin.

    Family and friends: caring for older parents, caring for sick family members or friends, calling the grandparents, taking care of grandchildren, e.g. when they missed out on a slot at the kindergarten, doing the grocery shopping for relatives/friends and visiting relatives/friends in hospital or homes, buying birthday presents, making phone calls on birthdays.

  • Mental load

    The third shift (the mental load) is unpaid and often involves invisible responsibilities, supervision and project management of second shift work. The third shift consists of cognitive organisation, planning and memorising what needs to be taken care of, including the when and how. Work which is mainly cognitive and invisible to others, however, requires energy and time of those who manage it. To take on the third shift is similar to filling all management positions within a company but without receiving any remuneration. To filling the positions of a Personnel Manager, Quartermaster and Human Resources Manager and to communicating between everyone and distributing tasks. When women take on the third shift, the focus is typically set on work relating to the home, children and other loved ones. This becomes evident when women spend their free time in carrying out unpaid work relating to the household and family. The mental load falls on women’s shoulders despite the fact that men are taking on more tasks at home, for it is not a given that they take on the responsibility, the mental load.


Who takes on the third shift at home and knows the answers to these questions?

The home

  • Who decides when the refrigerator needs cleaning?
  • When is the trash bin in the bathroom emptied?
  • How often do the flowers need watering? What flowers should not be kept in the south facing window?
  • What was the reason for the last vacuuming? Who suggested doing so?
  • When was the last time the bed sheets were replaced?
  • Where is the Christmas wrapping paper and the sticky tape?
  • How does the laundry become clean?
  • Who bought tealight candles last?
  • Where are the passports kept?
  • Which neighbour has a spare key?
  • How do you know what to buy from the grocery store?
  • How is a Cheerios stain removed from the couch?
  • Why is the bathroom mirror not smudgy?
  • Who shook out the cushions?
  • Who cleans the bin cupboard and the glasses used for the toothbrushes?
  • Why did you take the bin out last?
  • Where is the thermometer kept?
  • Who removed the fluff from underneath the legs of the chairs?
  • Who takes care of the finances?
  • Who does the gardening in front of the house?
  • Who was the last person that cleaned the windows?
  • What is the ideal temperature for washing the towels?

[The list is not exhaustive]

Questions which couples can use in relation to the third shift

  • Who remembers birthdays of family members and friends?
  • Who decides what the father-in-law gets for a birthday present?
  • Who does the gift shopping for your children’s friends?
  • Who calls up relatives and friends to check in to see how they are doing?
  • Who organises catch-ups with family and friends in and outside the home?
  • Who calls/texts friends and relatives when you need assistance or baby sitting?
  • Who takes food or other goods to sick relatives?
  • Who takes relatives to the doctor’s or visits them in the hospital?


  • What are the names of your children’s friends?
  • What are the names of your children’s kindergarten teachers?
  • Who is the children’s dentist?
  • Who takes care of the recreation discount card?
  • On what days are the sports trainings?
  • Which clothes, including outdoor clothing, need to be replaced?
  • What laundry detergent do your children react well to?
  • What lotion should be used for the children and when? How frequently should it be applied?
  • Who organises birthdays and other parties at home?
  • Who takes care of labelling and bringing some extra clothes to the kindergarten?
  • Do you know how frequently you need to book an appointment with the dentist, doctor or the hairdresser?
  • How did you notice that your child has an allergic reaction/intolerance?
  • Who does the packing for the whole family when going on holidays?
  • Who makes sure that everything is taken care of before taking off on holidays
  • How does your child decide his/her hobbies?
  • Despite still being at work, how do you know where your child is at after school hours?
  • How do you know what decisions your child makes in difficult situations?
  • If in trouble, what caregiver does your child seek to see first?
  • Who picks up a sick child from the kindergarten or school?
  • What is the best sunscreen for your child?
  • Who reminds the child to read and finish homework?
  • What vitamins do your children take?
  • Who wakes up to your sick child?
  • Who shops for hair ties?
  • Who picks up from the kindergarten? 
  • Who organises birthday parties?
  • Who communicates with the other parents when your children play with friends?
  • Who renews the child’s toy collection? Why have the baby books been removed from the bedroom of the six-year-old?
  • Who is most often home when the children are sick?
  • Who applied for placement at the kindergarten? What about the outdoor clothing for the kindergarten?
  • Who bought the car seat/stroller?
  • Who bought the birthday present from you to your friends’ children?
  • What are your children’s clothing sizes?
  • How did you remember the Teacher Conference Day at the kindergarten?
  • On what days are swimming lessons?
  • What are your children’s shoe sizes?
  • What happened to the clothes that your children outgrew already?

[The list is not exhaustive]


Why are we discussing this?

The mental load significantly influences the status of women in the labour market, their choice of job and labour force participation. The demand for mutual responsibilities for care and housework between women and men, relating both to the tasks and to the project management, is an integral part of VR’s fight for gender equality.

Unpaid work carried out by women is a part of the so-called care economy, which is the premise for the function of other economies across the globe. The care economy consists of, among other things, urgent unpaid work, such as caring for children and matters relating to managing the household. Caring for old and sick relatives should also be mentioned, work which typically falls on women’s shoulders. This work requires energy, time and contribution, all of which are often highly underestimated.

In this context, the care economy, with substantial involvement of women, has one in four women in Iceland aged between 50 and 64 care for old, disabled or sick relatives on regular basis, which is by far the highest representation in Europe. In comparison, the representation is close to 8% in Sweden and 2% in Denmark. Women also make up a significant majority of those who have sought work rehabilitation services at VIRK in the past 10 years, or close to 70%. Furthermore, a notably higher number of women, when compared to men, rely on disability pension benefits.

The gendered expectation which women face, especially women in heterosexual relationships, of taking care of and being responsible for the household and family, can cause stress, contribute to burnouts and discourage female career progression or labour force participation. Although women are far more likely to complete a university degree, they are seven times more likely to be in a part-time job and less likely than men to be promoted in a job position. The invisible mental load along with unpaid work for the home and loved ones often prevents women from committing to bigger challenges in the workplace. It is interesting to note that since the enactment of legislation on equal representation of men and women in 2010, the representation of women as chairpersons of companies has only risen 1% and women constitute scarcely one-quarter of the managing directors of companies.

The authors are Hulda Jónsdóttir Tölgyes, psychologist, and Þorsteinn V. Einarsson, teacher and MA in Gender Studies.