Aqsa Ahmed is an intern at the Global Institute for Women's Leadership.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had detrimental consequences on all parts of society, but the mental health impact sometimes risks being overlooked. The decision by the government to impose lockdown measures across the UK has clearly take its toll on people’s mental wellbeing, and women’s in particular.
There is no doubt that during such unprecedented and uncertain times, the likelihood of rising mental health issues would be high, and studies show that the pre-existing gender gap in mental health, with women worse affected than men, has widened significantly during the pandemic. Research from the US using real-time survey data, found that the gender gap in mental health in the US increased by 66 per cent over the course of the pandemic.
So why are women bearing the emotional brunt of the coronavirus lockdown? What has been done by companies to support women who may be suffering?
Drivers of declining mental health for women
There are many contributing factors to the declining mental health of women during this time. However, there is a lack of evidence of one single factor that explains women’s deteriorating mental health.
Following the government-imposed lockdown, the majority of the UK’s workforce was required to work from home, and schools and nurseries were closed. From research regarding this issue, it was seen that women are taking on a greater role at home, which is centred around caring for the rest of the family. In particular, working mothers are the most affected by these unprecedented times, as most of their work at home is interrupted, with women able to do “on average only a third of the uninterrupted paid-work hours of fathers”. These interruptions that mothers are facing include caring for their children or elderly relatives, as well as taking care of housework. Dealing with other responsibilities while undertaking greater unpaid work than men has proven to have adverse consequences on the mental wellbeing of these working mothers.
Research also shows that 61 per cent of women are finding it difficult to stay positive during these times, in contrast to 47 per cent of men. Meanwhile, another significant factor is that the majority of frontline and health workers are mostly women, which further adds to the mental strain of women when having to work closely with patients during a pandemic.
Covid-19 has also had significant negative economic impacts, and as a result, more jobs have been lost for women, which is likely to have increased the level of uncertainty and emotional stress. Financial insecurity was common among women before the pandemic but has now increased dramatically following companies making thousands of employees redundant.
How can companies support women during these times?
UN Global Compact has discussed possible actions, which can be put in place to guide companies to recognise and respond to women’s issues during Covid-19.
Ultimately, it will be important for companies to apply a gender lens when considering and addressing the socioeconomic impact of the virus, and to emphasise women’s issues in these actions. Some examples include:
- Targeting gender equality within the company
- Supporting and recognising unpaid work, which is mainly taken by women, and offering possible arrangements and childcare options
- Educating employees on issues such as domestic violence, which has increased during the lockdown, and providing them with hotlines and other support
- Liaising with government and other sectors to support recovery programmes for women
Covid-19 has shown that far more needs to be done in order to make the workplace more gender-accommodating, especially for women who have caring responsibilities.
This pandemic has allowed companies to recognise that the workplace has issues which need to be addressed – in particular, inflexible work arrangements for women who have other caring responsibilities.
But companies also need to take into account the fact that more women than men have pre-existing mental health issues, and they need to better support them through this time.
Let’s hope the experience of this pandemic has opened avenues of progression for a better, gender-inclusive future within workplaces, one that motivates companies to adequately respond to these concerns.