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Struggling to keep a household running on top of a busy career is a common conundrum for many lawyers. Outsourcing the mental load to a professional life admin assistant is an enticing potential solution.

Despite juggling a partnership at Sydney-based Shaw Reynolds Lawyers with raising two young children and living on a large property, Alyce Kliese is for the most part unburdened by an overwhelming mental load.

It’s all thanks to a personal life assistant who takes care of everything from ordering groceries online and buying birthday presents, to organising family holidays, arranging car repairs, and solving problems like figuring out how to remove the wasp nest next to the garage.

“She even arranges the goats, which we have come onto our property to manage the weeds,” Kliese says. “I gave her the details for the goat people, and she gets it sorted so that the goats are at my property for two weeks each year. I’ve freed up so many hours of my week because I don’t have to do this sort of stuff. It’s amazing.”

In much the same way as an executive assistant keeps you organised and on schedule at work, a personal life assistant takes charge of your domestic responsibilities, giving you more time to tend to other areas of your life. For busy lawyers – women, in particular – services like these can be the difference between keeping your head above water and drowning in overwhelm.

Tackling your to-do list

Caroline Brunne is Kliese’s personal life assistant and the founder of lifestyle management group Organise Curate Design. She describes her role as a life admin specialist who “supports the admin, research and logistics of getting a task done”.

“If I have a client who needs someone to manage their laundry, I am not personally going to go there and fold it and put it away for them,” she explains. “We will coordinate with the laundry person, make sure that they show up on time and arrange payment to the service provider.”

Keeping insurances and car registrations up to date, arranging bill payments, researching and booking travel, and reconciling credit cards are some of the most common tasks Sarah Feehan, director of Life Executive Assistant, looks after for her clients. Then there are ad hoc tasks that crop up unexpectedly.

“One of my clients had their home damaged during a recent storm – it ruined all their roofing,” Feehan says. “I put through the insurance claim with their provider, and then I followed the process all the way through, scheduling the repairs for when my clients were travelling overseas.

“Another client has a natural spring that they want to be able to use for resale and human consumption, so I’m working out how to do that. Who tests the water? What permits or licences do they need? It’s my job to find out.”

Brunne says her client base is top-heavy with busy executives, parents with demanding careers, and people going through big life transitions like a new job, business, or baby. Many are “high-performing professionals”, including lawyers, engineers, and doctors.

Her rates range from $75 per hour on a monthly retainer to $90 per hour for ad hoc tasks. “We start with a 30-minute complimentary phone call, and if it’s a good fit we do a two-hour discovery session where I poke and prod at everything – your health and wellbeing, how up to date you are with medical appointments, what’s happening with your children, any goals you have and the things that are keeping you up at night,” Brunne says.

“Out of that, we talk about strategies, systems, routines, calendars and task management, and I share advice in that space.”

Improving your mental wellbeing

The mental load is pervasive and never-ending, and there is a lot more to it than cooking, cleaning and childcare. Recent research published by the University of Melbourne details two main components: cognitive labour, comprising the scheduling, planning and organising required to support the smooth operation of a household, and emotional labour – when there is worry or stress attached to these tasks. Booking a family holiday and feeling stressed about the accommodation you’ve chosen or worrying about what to cook for a dinner party and when you will find time to buy the ingredients, are classic examples.

It follows that outsourcing life admin and the anxiety that often accompanies it can lead to improved mental health and wellbeing – which is especially significant for lawyers given the profession’s high levels of psychological distress and depression.

“For most professionals, the issue is that personal things go on the bottom of the to-do list as work pressures are such that they take priority, but those personal things are still scratching away in your mind,” says Mary Digiglio, a board member of the Minds Count Foundation, which promotes psychological health and safety in the legal community, and a managing partner at Sydney law firm Swaab.

“Alleviating this burden offers benefits from a time perspective and in terms of lightening the load. For someone like me, there’s probably a day’s worth of work a week that someone could take away from me.”

Indeed, for Kliese, the main benefits of working with Brunne are “less stress and less worrying about things because I know that someone else is taking care of them”.

Feehan says her clients have more time to spend on leisure or with family. “It’s almost like another job trying to run a household on top of your regular job. My clients are so time poor and outsourcing tasks helps them be more present.”

Likewise, Brunne says, easing the mental load provides the opportunity to decompress from work. “Early on in the business I had a client phone to tell me she was on her way to the beach with her family, something they had never been able to do before because weekends were always a mess and everyone was scrambling to get things done,” she says.

“I was doing what felt really minor like laundry, groceries and routines and charts for chores, but the impact that it had on the parents and how that flowed on to how they could spend time with their children was life changing.”

Creating a support system for women

The potential benefits to wellbeing of outsourcing the mental load are most pronounced among women, who continue to take on much more of the domestic load. Australian women of all ages spend more than nine hours a week more than men on unpaid work and care, and in 78 per cent of families, women take on the mental load of coordinating kids’ activities, according to the Federal Government’s 2023 Status of Women Report Card.

Income and professional seniority have very little to do with the division of labour. “Women do just as much housework and childcare as they move up the career ladder, while men’s time on these tasks decreases – it’s bonkers,” says Lauren Berry, co-founder of Work Life Everything, a research-based consultancy offering training for female leaders.

Worryingly, a 2022 study published in Lancet Public Health, the first of its kind to examine the gendered association between unpaid labour and mental health, found women experienced depressive or psychological distress symptoms with increasing labour demands. For men, the effects were less apparent.

Brunne says many of her female clients are at “at overwhelm” by the time they seek out her services. “Over the years, I’ve had many vulnerable conversations with women who are trying to keep all the balls in the air and hold themselves to a standard that, at times, cannot be maintained,” she says.

“They’re trying to be the best employee or boss, wife or partner, mother, friend and member of the community. It can come out in a flood of emotion.”

As part of a research project exploring the mental load as a source of women – leaders, in particular – burning out and dropping out of work, Berry is examining how virtual assistants can create support systems for women that offer similar benefits to the support men with stay-at-home wives receive.

She says one of the main benefits of personal life assistants for women is simple: things get done by other people. “Unlike messy familial relationships that require a negotiation on what good looks like, if you are paying someone to do something for you, it’s reasonable to ask that they deliver to your specific expectations.”

To avoid management of an assistant adding yet another dimension to the mental load of women and further entrenching household labour as a female responsibility, Berry suggests a gender-equal approach.

“Managing is a job, and someone needs to lead on the contract and be the direct ‘supervisor’, but it would be great if that wasn’t the woman, and also great if both partners in the couple could participate in a weekly touch base with the assistant.”

Outsourcing like a boss

You’ll get the most out of your personal life assistant if you work with them effectively, Brunne explains. That starts with being responsive.

“Sometimes someone has a discovery session and they’re really keen, but they just can’t get organised enough to get themselves over the line. Or they sign up with us and we come up with this massive list of things to do, and then someone from the team will send them a message asking which of the three different flight options would they like, and we get no reply,” she says.

“You’ve got this incredible resource at your fingertips, so help us help you. If there’s a delay or whatever else, let us know so we can move things around.”

Likewise, Kliese says, agreeing on how often you’ll communicate, and by which means, will help to streamline the process.

“Caroline uses Asana [a work and task management platform], but she also knows that at certain times I can be quite busy and I’m not going to be looking at Asana because I’m going to be in back-to-back meetings. If there’s something that needs my attention, her team will send me a text,” she says. “We also have a catch-up call each month so I can mind-dump anything that’s on my mind that I haven’t had a chance to give her.”

Outsourcing “women-coded tasks” can lead to feeling weak and like a “bad mum”, but it’s important to push through, Berry says. “Work to transition from guilt and people pleasing to tackling power and systems. If you find yourself with a newly free hour, don’t reflexively give it to volunteering at your child’s school.”

And even though there’s much to be gained from working with a personal life assistant, there may be some tasks you feel awkward handing over or simply want to keep for yourself.

“There’s things that fall into the practical bucket, the things that are clinical, like organising car registration, dry cleaning and buying a new laptop,” Digiglio says. “Then there’s things like picking a restaurant for your child’s birthday and buying their presents that you might feel deserve your mental and emotional energy.”