Throughout history, pandemics have been the norm rather than the exception. But having not experienced a major global disease outbreak in over 100 years, the Coronavirus pandemic caught the world by surprise. With schools closed and most office-based workers working from home since mid-March, parents suddenly found themselves having to juggle work commitments, childcare, and homeschooling.
In late May 2020, a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and the UCL Institute of Education questioned 3,500 families of opposite-gender parents about how they were managing children and home working.
The findings make for stark reading.
Few working mothers will be surprised by the study’s finding that for every hour of uninterrupted work mothers manage, fathers achieve three. The study also found that mothers were 23% more likely than fathers to have temporarily or permanently lost their jobs during the Covid-19 crisis. Furthermore, mothers were 47% more likely to have quit their position and 14% more likely to have been furloughed.
Lucy Kraftman, a Research Economist at IFS, said:
“Mothers are doing, on average, more childcare and more housework than fathers who have the same work arrangements, be that not working, working from home or working outside the home. The only set of households where we see mothers and fathers sharing childcare and housework equally are those in which both parents were previously working but the father has now stopped working for pay while the mother is still in paid work. However, mothers in these households are doing paid work during an average of five hours a day in addition to doing the same amount of domestic work as their partner. The vast increase in the amount of childcare that mothers are doing under lockdown, which many are juggling alongside paid work, is likely to put a strain on their well-being.”
The impact of lockdown on women’s careers will be felt for years to come. Not only have schools been closed for most students since March, the summer holiday clubs which parents traditionally rely on to help them manage the six to nine weeks of summer holidays have either been cancelled, or due to social distancing requirements, become less appealing. Therefore, many women, already struggling to manage all their responsibilities, may end up losing six months of valuable career progress.
Concentration and its link to success
Cal Newport, an author and Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science at Georgetown University, writes in his book, Deep Work, that there are two core abilities a person needs to thrive in today’s economy:
- The ability to quickly master hard things; and
- The ability to produce, at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
The only way to achieve mastery and solid output is to have the space to focus, uninterrupted, for many hours at a time. Today’s offices and work culture, involving an open plan setup, endless meetings, and hundreds of emails (most of which are unnecessary) make ‘deep work’ difficult enough to achieve. Add in children and homeschooling, and concentration for more than a few minutes becomes impossible.
Women have always been praised for their ability to multi-task. But the fact is that multi-tasking is terrible, not only for our career, but for mental health.
A Stanford University study showed that:
People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.
The study concluded that rather than making people more productive, it merely made them “suckers for irrelevancy”, unable to resist distractions.
The IFS study points out that where focused work time is important for performance, gender differences in interruptions and multitasking risks further increasing the gender wage gap among parents.
The looming mental health crisis
Plenty of studies have shown that exposure to war, terrorist attacks, natural and community disasters can cause physical and psychological problems. However, while researchers have assessed the frequency of stress disorders in the general population, less attention has been focused on the social context of trauma exposures and how stressful events may have changed a person’s life circumstances. For example, if a community disaster, such as a worldwide pandemic changes the social environment of survivors, stress-related disorders may develop. Furthermore, the development of such disorders can occur months after the social climate has returned to normal.
The surge in stress felt by mothers during the Covid-19 pandemic will undoubtedly increase instances of mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and burnout. If these issues are not adequately addressed, including support being made available by employers, we may see a swathe of female talent lost to the virus.
So much has been taken from us – many have lost loved ones, their jobs and/or their livelihoods. Balancing childcare, homeschooling and work has undoubtedly affected women more than men in terms of stress and lost productivity. Workplaces need to ensure that all staff, but women especially, are supported, with a view to the fact that numerous mental health and career consequences may not emerge until many months in the future.
If you are affected by the above issues and need to speak to someone, you can contact the Samaritans on 116 123 (free 24-hour helpline) or the mental health charity MIND.
BDBF is a leading firm of employment law specialists advising experienced employees, partners and directors in the insurance, academic, medical, legal, and financial services sectors. Contact us on 020 3828 0350 for employment law advice.
 Adams RE, Boscarino JA. Stress and well-being in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack: The continuing effects of a communitywide disaster. J Commun Psychol. 2005;33:175–190.