- Along with the physical challenges of COVID-19, many women experienced an added psychological distress caused by the amount of unpaid work required to take on at home.
- A new study found that this added labor often worsened the mental health of participants.
- Researchers say recognition and action is needed from governments to address gender inequality.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, women and mothers have overwhelmingly taken on an onslaught of responsibilities at home. Whether it’s caring for loved ones, homeschooling children, or securing vaccination appointments for older relatives, it’s been widely reported that they’ve had to bear the brunt of additional labor.
Now, a new study is confirming that juggling all these priorities is taking a toll on women’s mental health.
According to the study, women spent more time on unpaid work than men during COVID-19 lockdowns, which in turn has worsened their mental health. Single mothers experienced even more psychological distress than other groups among the subjects in the United Kingdom that were included in the study.
“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,” Baowen Xue, PhD, a U.K.-based researcher and lead author of the study, tells Verywell. “Our research using data collected during the early months of lockdown shows that women spent considerably more time than men undertaking housework and childcare during lockdown, and the knock-on for working parents’ mental health.”
The March findings were published in the journal PLoS One.
Determining Differences in Unpaid Work
To see if there were differences in the amount of unpaid work conducted among gender groups during 2020 in the U.K., the researchers used data from part of a longitudinal study.
In 2020, the information was obtained via a web survey each month. In total, over 17,000 people completed the survey in April and over 14,000 completed it in May.
Who Took on More Unpaid Work?
The findings from the study showed that, during the months of April and May, on average:
- Women spent approximately 15 hours a week doing housework, while men spent less than 10 hours a week doing housework.
- Women spent 20.5 to 22.5 hours a week on childcare and homeschooling, while men spent about 12 hours a week on childcare and homeschooling.
- Women were responsible for 64% of the housework and 63% of childcare.
As a whole, mothers were more likely than fathers to reduce their working hours or change their employment schedules to adjust for the increased time needed for childcare. In other words, women not only took on more responsibility in the home, but they were also the ones who sacrificed their careers and routine.
The Mental Health Effects
The discrepancies between men and women during the pandemic had a negative effect on mental health. Specifically, increased housework and the responsibility of homeschooling were linked to higher levels of psychological stress for women, while men did not experience the same effect.
The negative mental health effect was prominent for women who were the only partner who had to change their work patterns, as well as for single mothers.
Fathers experienced more psychological distress when the situation required them to reduce their work hours but did not require the mother to do so. However, this circumstance was not as prevalent as the reverse.
The study’s authors note that awareness of continued gender biases is needed to address the situation and alleviate some of its negative effects.
Baowen Xue, PhD
Continued gender inequality in divisions of unpaid care work during lockdown may put women at a greater risk of psychological distress.
— Baowen Xue, PhD
Similar findings have been seen in research from other countries during the COVID-19 pandemic. One study published in Gender Issues highlights that in India—where women were already doing more unpaid work than men—the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the existing gender inequalities and increased the burden of unpaid work even more.
Why Are These Results Important?
It was already well-established that in many parts of the world, women perform the brunt of unpaid work—even before COVID-19.
Being required to change work patterns (like working late at night when a person usually relaxes or sleeps), managing homeschooling responsibilities if they have children at home, and performing household obligations—all while continuing to ensure that enough income is coming in to put food on the table—has taken a toll on the mental health of women.
Many women experience isolation, a lack of sleep when the workday spilled over into the evening, and an overwhelming sense of obligation.
Factors like disrupted sleep are linked to increased depression risk, which is one reason why changes to a woman’s day-to-day schedule could lead to increased psychological distress.
“This suggests that fairness really matters in this context,” Xue says. “Continued gender inequality in divisions of unpaid care work during lockdown may put women at a greater risk of psychological distress.”
COVID-19 Gender Inequalities Go Beyond Mental Health
The effects of the pandemic on women haven’t just been on their mental health. Xue says that the research “suggests that gender inequality in unpaid care work due to school closures may exacerbate persistent gender inequalities in the job market.”
Halle Tecco, MBA, MPH, the founder and chief women’s health officer of Natalist, a women’s health startup, echoes Xue’s sentiment. “We know the gender pay gap exists and that women make less money for the same work,” Tecco tells Verywell, adding that for many families over the past year, the man’s career was prioritized while the woman “was expected to pick up more at home.”
Tecco says the situation is “compounded by outdated gender expectations that still exist in most communities, where women are expected to take on more unpaid care work. It’s a vicious cycle.”
What Can Bridge The Gap?
Despite school opening, vaccines being distributed, and fewer lockdowns, the lack of shared responsibilities when it comes to unpaid work—cooking, cleaning, laundry, and caring for kids—continues to be a challenge for families worldwide.
Even though approximately two-thirds of the 23.5 million working women with children under 18 worked full-time in 2018, a study conducted at the University of Indiana showed that decisions surrounding who does the housework are often based on gender.
According to the study, regardless of how much income a woman made, she is often the one doing what is called “female-typed chores,” such as childcare and washing dishes. Same-sex couples tend to assign “female-type chores” to the partner who is more “feminine.”
Understanding the Bias
Specific to the U.K., Xue shares that one solution currently underway is called The Women’s Budget Group (a leading U.K. charity on women’s finance). Xue explains that “together with a number of other leading voices in the gender equality debate, this group says a care-led recovery is what’s required in order to redistribute unpaid work between men and women more equally.”
A care-led economy is one in which “policymakers and businesses recognize and address the extra burden and psychological stresses that have been faced by women” Xue says.
“At a global level, governments everywhere must recognize that the pandemic is derailing hard-fought-for improvements and that lone mothers, yet again, are suffering most,” Xue adds. “Action is needed now to help people get their lives back on track and keep the gender equality train moving forward.”
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