Lockdown – just how stressful has it been?

2020 is a year many will be happy to see the back of. It has been a stressful time for sure with periods of lockdown creating major challenges for our day to day work and family lives. But have the stresses and strains associated with lockdown affected the mental health of the UK population as a whole? Tarani Chandola and colleagues have been using specially collected COVID19 data to investigate.

On March 23, the UK found itself in its first lockdown, a direct result of rising infection rates and deaths caused by the pandemic. The new normal for many was working from home whilst trying to homeschool children. The weekly shop involved queues and masks and social distancing. Getting a doctor or dentist appointment or scheduled medical treatment took on a whole new dimension. Trips to the pub, cinema and theatre were things people could no longer look forward to and looking out for elderly relatives and friends became more important and challenging in equal measure.

Gradually through the Summer months, many of these restrictions were eased and the majority of children returned to school. Businesses including pubs, gyms and hairdressers were able to re-open albeit with strict social distancing and hygiene measures in place.

The severity of the restrictions combined with the direct effects of the disease itself created what might be described as a perfect storm of increased potential stresses likely to adversely affect the mental health of people everywhere. Most of us will have felt fearful about catching the disease, and many will have experienced additional worries for already vulnerable family and friends. The realities of working at home brought its own challenges while for others being furloughed or losing their job brought additional anxiety. 

Although there have been widespread reports of worsening mental health and wellbeing through the first UK lockdown, there have also been some reports that this eased somewhat through April and May although not back to pre-pandemic levels.

COVID-19 data

In our research, which made use of data from Understanding Society including its specially-collected COVID-19 study, we were able to look across a slightly longer period of time at the experiences of between 13,000 and 17,000 people in the UK. These were people who had been involved in the survey for many years, so there was a great deal of background information available as a backdrop for our research. 

We wanted to see whether more people were reporting struggling with mental health problems and to what extent the prevalence of problems was directly related to the stresses and strains of lockdown and the pandemic specifically. We also wanted to see if, after the initial ‘shock’ of events in April eased in subsequent months as people began to adapt and ‘get used to’ their new circumstances.

Between April and July study participants were asked a range of questions directly related to the disease itself including whether they had had it, been tested for it or experienced symptoms. There were also questions about any other health treatment, their families, work and money- related concerns such as struggling to pay the bills.

Every month people were asked about their work status so we could see for example  who was employed, self-employed, working reduced hours, furloughed or been made redundant. They were also asked about hours spent on childcare and homeschooling or whether they felt lonely.

Common mental disorder

Before lockdown just under 25 per cent of people in the UK had experienced mental health issues and this rose to just over 37 per cent in April, so more than a third of the population. There was a gradual dropping off of cases through to July (just under 26 per cent) taking things almost back to pre-lockdown levels. 

The percentage of new cases of mental health problems among participants in April was double (around 28 percent) what it was in the preceding 12 months.

And recovery rates from a mental health issue dropped from pre-lockdown months through April to June but picked up again in July, by which time social restrictions had been eased considerably and, our research shows, potential stressors around COVID itself, juggling work and family responsibilities and health, business and money concerns had decreased for most.

The number of people who reported having some sort of health limiting condition and having to cancel or postpone medical treatment halved from April to July. Over the same period, the number of self-employed people who said their business had been adversely affected also went down from 3.6 percent to 0.6 percent. Employees who reported being made unemployed or being on reduced hours also more than halved and there was only a small increase in the proportion of people describing themselves as ‘economically inactive’. 

Rates of reporting ‘often feeling lonely’ went down from 8.8 to 6.7 percent and fewer people reported having to spend more than 16 hours a week on childcare or homeschooling although there was a small increase in the proportion of people spending 1-15 hours on those tasks.

For some people, problems with paying bills remained an issue throughout the period,  although the percentage of people who said they found things very difficult financially or who said the future looked bleaker financially reduced somewhat from April onwards. 

Which stresses affected people most?

The strongest link between lockdown related stress was loneliness. People in the survey who reported ‘often feeling lonely’ were 11 to 16 times more likely to have mental health problems from the April to July compared to those who never felt lonely. Other important stressors were having COVID-19 symptoms and always working from home. 

Self-employed people whose businesses were negatively impacted by COVID-19 were more likely to develop a mental health problem compared to their peers whose businesses were not. And by July, employees who became unemployed, or were made redundant or whose work hours were reduced were over two times as likely to develop a problem compared with those who were unaffected. 

Adults doing16 hours or more a week on childcare or home schooling were about 1.4 times more likely to develop a problem compared to those who had no children or did not spend any time on childcare. 

Adults who were finding it quite or very difficult financially were 2.4 times more likely to develop a mental health issue compared to those who were living comfortably. Similarly, adults who expected their future finances to be worse off than now were 1.6 times more likely.

Longitudinal analysis

Our findings from looking at this group of people across April to July are in line with other surveys undertaken by the Office of National Statistics and the UCL COVID-19 study of 90,000 adults. We add to that picture by looking more closely at which stressful circumstances are most likely to drive up incidences of poor mental health during a pandemic of this nature. 

We conclude that despite the lifting of many lockdown conditions by July and a decrease in the levels of many of the psychological and social stressors, these stressors continued to drive poor mental health among people who were lonely and those who were made unemployed or redundant, had financial problems or had childcare or home schooling duties.

As unemployment and redundancy increase in the labour market, an inevitable result of recent events, it will be important to keep monitoring the mental health consequences of unemployment. It is Interesting also to note that employees who were furloughed had about the same levels of mental health problems as employees whose job hours were not affected. This suggests that the government measures to protect jobs also had positive mental health benefits for those employees who were able to keep their jobs albeit in a “furloughed” state.

The mental health impact of COVID-19 and lockdown-related stressors among adults in the UK is research by Tarani Chandola, Cara Booker, Meena Kumari and Michaela Benzeval and  is published in Psychological Medicine

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