Unpaid Work

Sex and Gender-based Analysis of this topic


Caring for children, informal care-giving to other family members, cooking and cleaning, and other household work, such as shopping for goods and services, constitute some of the most common unpaid tasks. Traditionally, these tasks have been seen as part of women’s role. Social norms have dictated that women perform unpaid work and men perform paid work. Despite the value of this work, it is excluded from a cash-based economy and is rarely recognized as ‘work’ [1]. Statistics Canada has primarily measured unpaid work through surveys which distinguish time spent on unpaid work from paid work, education, leisure, and time spent on personal care [2]. How women spend their time carries implications for their quality of life and well-being. The balance between time spent on work — paid and/or unpaid — and time spent on leisure and personal care both affects and is affected by income, time, and resources available for healthy activity and opportunities for social support [3].

Sex Issues

Time use surveys show that women and men spend a similar amount of time on all work, yet a greater proportion of women’s time is spent on unpaid work. Women in Manitoba spend an average of 4.1 hours per day on unpaid work or an equivalent of 28.7 hours in a 50.4 hour work week. Compared to men, women work the equivalent of another 8-hour day each week, without pay. Unpaid work consumes more than one quarter of women’s waking hours [2]. Nearly 1 in 4 women in Manitoba devote 30 or more hours to unpaid household tasks in a week and 1 in 5 spend an additional 30 hours on caring for children. Women aged 25 to 44 are most likely to devote long hours to household work and especially for child care. Thus, during some of the most economically productive years of life, many women invest a great deal of time in unpaid work [4, 5]. When time spent on unpaid and paid activities are both accounted for, it is apparent that workloads are especially heavy for mothers with full-time employment, especially single mothers [2].

Gender Issues

Although women’s participation in the paid labour force has increased dramatically over the past quarter century, their amount of unpaid work has not decreased. At the same time, the health care services system has shifted more care from hospitals to communities, where women assume greater responsibilities for the welfare of family members [6]. Often referred to as women’s ‘double shift,’ these demands are recognized to have harmful effects on the mental and physical health of women [7]. The relationships between unpaid work and financial status, perceived stress, and available time for leisure and self-care are critical areas of concern with regard to women’s health. Women with children and full time work, particularly single mothers, have the least amount of leisure time and commonly report severe time stress [8, 9]. Although women commonly regard care-giving as personally rewarding, research has documented significant negative effects of care-giving on the physical, emotional, financial, and social well-being of care-givers. Survey results for the Prairies found a 2 to 3-fold greater prevalence of health consequences and reduced sleep for female care-givers compared to men [10]. The consequences are of particular concern for women aged 45 to 64 who represent a large proportion of care-givers.


Immigrant women, rural women, and women living in poverty are particularly vulnerable to time stress and the health consequences of unpaid work. Many immigrant women try to balance traditional role expectations for heavy domestic workloads and a Canadian lifestyle that includes paid work [7]. Among some ethnic and linguistic minority groups, women are relied upon more heavily for unpaid home care where culturally sensitive services are lacking or language barriers affect the quality of institutional care for family members [11]. In rural contexts, social services cut-backs and depopulation in farm communities have increased the care-giving and community service responsibilities of farm women. Economic challenges to family farms has led many farm women to adopt triple work loads that include farm labour, paid work off the farm, and unpaid work [12]. Women living in poverty and older women on fixed incomes lack financial resources to support care-giving activities or to gain respite when necessary [6]. A lack of time saving devices and easy access to food and transportation, among other factors, increase the demands placed on women in poverty, with detriments for both women and their children [6].


The health impacts of work for women reflect their participation in both paid and unpaid work. However, experts in the field of time-use research caution that paid and unpaid categories of work cannot be fairly compared. The problem stems from differences in how data are collected for the two types of work. For example, household management, emotional work, and secondary child care are missing from accounts of unpaid work. Further, breaks and down time are generally not included in time estimates for this work whereas all time spent at paid work is counted as work. Thus, measures of time use tend to over-estimate the burden of time for individuals who have paid work [2].

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