Working and caring: the mental health toll of combining paid work and childcare during lockdown

Baowen Xue and Anne McMunn from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies  at University College London discuss new research showing  that women spent considerably more time than men undertaking housework and childcare during lockdown and the knock on for working parents’ mental health, particularly that of lone mothers. They explain how the analysis adds further weight to the Women’s Budget Group’s calls for a care-led approach to the recovery and say years of progress towards a more gender equal society will be derailed if nothing is done.  

There can rarely have been a more talked about start of the school year than that of 2020. Much has been said about the setbacks to children’s learning and the challenges that have faced parents juggling homeschooling, childcare, housework and working from home during lockdown. The indications from early research into this were that women were tending to bear the brunt of these extra caring responsibilities and that this was likely to have a detrimental effect on their mental health. Now new analysis of specially collected data from the early months of COVID-19 adds further evidence of this.

Lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic brought with it a host of challenges for us all, not least an almost immediate increase in unpaid care work such as childcare and housework, particularly for families with young children. Research by a team at the Institute for Fiscal Studies confirmed that women continued to spend more time than men doing unpaid care work during lockdown

These early findings prompted major concern from a host of gender equality lobby groups and organisations, not least the Women’s Budget Group, who have called on the Government to prioritise and invest more in care provision to help address these inequalities.

Our research using data collected during the early months of lockdown confirms that women spent much more time on housework and childcare than men. Mental health was worse for the man/woman in a couple where he/she was the only one to adapt or reduce work hours for childcare. This suggests that fairness really matters in this context. 

For single mothers, having to change work patterns to juggle their job responsibilities  with childcare and homeschooling, things were even tougher. They exhibited considerably more symptoms of poor mental health and this finding stayed strong even when we accounted for their mental health pre-lockdown. 

COVID19 data

During April and May, a number of participants from the 40,000 household study Understanding Society took part in a special ongoing COVID19 study. As part of that they were asked a range of questions about how much time they spent each week doing housework and childcare/homeschooling. They were also asked whether they had had to adapt working patterns or reduce working hours due to childcare/homeschooling. On top of this they were asked a range of questions to gauge the state of their mental health.

On average, the women in the study spent about 15 hours per week in April and May doing housework compared with men who spent 10 hours. When it came to caring for the children and doing homeschooling, women spent nearly twice as much time on this as men – 20.5 hours per week in April increasing to 22.5 hours in May. For men the figure was 12 hours per week for each month.

Only 12 percent of working fathers reduced work hours due to caring responsibilities compared with 17 percent of working mothers.

Between couples, women undertook 64 percent of housework and 63 percent of childcare. Where parents were in a couple they tended not to reduce their working hours, although where this did occur it was more likely to be the woman than the man who made the adjustment (21 percent compared with 11 percent).

Continued gender inequality

Although this research is still under peer-review, we don’t anticipate the essential figures changing. The essential message from this research about how badly lockdown is affecting working parents, particularly single mothers, will also stay the same. 

Looking after children all day who would ordinarily be at school, with the additional responsibilities of homeschooling and extra cooking, cleaning and juggling the demands of a job in circumstances that are challenging have, for many, likely led to sleepless nights, lack of exercise, loneliness and feelings of being overwhelmed. It will undoubtedly have put a strain on relationships between couples and within families.

With children back at school, the load will have eased for some, but the stresses and worries of lockdown are by no means over. There are numerous reports of schools sending home whole classes of children to quarantine because of reports of or concerns over COVID cases among teachers and pupils alike. As we write this, cases of COVID19 are rising at an alarming rate, the Government has announced further tightening of restrictions and the coming Autumn and Winter months look challenging for everyone.

Even before the pandemic, our research showed that very little progress was being made towards a fairer division of housework and childcare and that women were still doing the lion’s share of cleaning, cooking and caring for the kids. 

Care-led recovery

The Women’s Budget Group, together with a number of other important voices in the gender equality debate, say a care-led recovery is what’s required in order to redistribute unpaid work between men and women more equally. 

At the launch of their recent report on the issue, the Group’s Dirtector, Dr Mary- Ann Stephenson, commented that a care- led recover will ‘ensure we all have time to care, and time free from care. It will allow men to spend more time with their loved ones and remove the burden of unpaid work from women so that it is shared equally amongst a household. Coronavirus has shown us that the economy is not working but for women the economy has never really worked and this pandemic has highlighted the stark impact it is having on women’s mental health. We can no longer continue this way and expect that women will just bear the brunt. We are the economy and it’s time the economy worked for us.’

At a global level, many concerns are being expressed that progress towards a more gender equal world is being hampered by COVID19. Governments everywhere must recognise that the pandemic is derailing hard fought for improvements and that lone mothers, yet again, are suffering most. Action is needed now to to help people get their lives back on track and keep the gender equality train moving forward. 

Gender differences in the impact of unpaid care work on psychological distress during the Covid- 19 lockdown in the UK is a Pre-Print in SOCARXIV by Dr Baowen Xue and Professor Anne McMunn from the ESRC International Lifecourse Centre in the Department of Epidemiology and Health at UCL. 

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