A briefing paper prepared by Daniel L. Carson, University of Utah, and Melissa A. Milkie, University of Toronto, for the Council on Contemporary Families symposium The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Future of Gender Equality (PDF).
The COVID-19 pandemic was a stressful time for American adults. Indeed, rates of clinical depression and anxiety were 300% higher in the early days of the pandemic than they were the previous year. Not only was there substantial concern and worry about the virus itself, but social measures to stem the virus spread (i.e., lockdowns; school closures) created work-family stressors for many adults, parents especially. Like other impacts of the pandemic, work-family stress was not distributed evenly as US mothers’ mental health appeared most negatively affected. Given pre-existing gender disparities in psychological well-being, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated gender inequalities in mental health. This brief focuses on gender differences in psychological distress and its links to work-family stressors during the COVID-19 pandemic. We highlight how the pandemic may have magnified existing differences in well-being between mothers and fathers and conclude with a discussion of interventions that are needed to reduce these inequalities.
COVID and Mental Health
In addition to its obvious costs to life and physical health, the COVID-19 pandemic took a big toll on psychological well-being. In the United States, estimates from the US Census Household Pulse Survey indicate that one-third of the adult population suffered from clinical levels of depression and anxiety during the early days of the pandemic. In contrast, estimates indicate that only 10% of US adults reported clinical levels of anxiety and depression in 2019. Worse yet, the number of depressed and anxious adults increased as the pandemic persisted, rising to more than 2 in 5 by the end of 2020. Today, psychological distress remains elevated compared to pre-pandemic levels. Estimates indicate that as of June 2023, nearly one-third of US adults still suffered from clinical levels of anxiety and/or depression.
Work and Family Roles and Psychological Distress During the COVID-19 Pandemic:
One of the primary reasons psychological distress increased during the COVID pandemic is that it created a great deal of stress in people’s work and family roles. Social distancing measures designed to stem the transmission of COVID (e.g., closures of schools, childcare centers, non-essential services, and changes in work conditions) had numerous impacts. First, many people experienced a reduction in social integration, social support, and loss of potentially valued identities – all of which are central to mental health. Indeed, loneliness and job loss were two of the strongest predictors of mental health during the pandemic. Job loss also threatened mental health through financial hardship.
Second, roles and their responsibilities became increasingly overwhelming, particularly for mothers, due to the loss of childcare, school, and informal parenting supports. Both men and women increased their time in housework and childcare during the pandemic, though women continued doing the majority share of these tasks. Time in both physical and mental domestic labor during the pandemic was positively associated with increases in psychological distress, but primarily for women. Yet, at least for a time, fathers increased their relative share of domestic labor, particularly when they were able to work from home; this increase in equality was associated with perceptions of better relationship quality among mothers. Occupational changes occurred too, with some jobs becoming potentially better due to remote work and less commuting time, and other jobs largely populated by women such as essential service, teaching, and health care work, becoming increasingly difficult due to potential virus transmission, staff shortages, and other problems.
Third, at least in the early days of the pandemic, conflicts between work and family obligations for US parents appear to have worsened, on average. Among those who remained employed during the pandemic, increases in distress were limited largely to parents and tied to work-family conflict and adjustments to paid work schedules. Parents who were essential workers had to worry about facilitating virtual school or arranging care, while remote-working parents faced with the blurring of boundaries between home and work, had to juggle paid work while simultaneously monitoring and educating children. In the US at least, psychological distress was tied especially to interference of domestic responsibilities with paid work and the associated guilt of not meeting obligations for one’s job. Nevertheless, when push came to shove, many parents, but mothers especially, cut back on paid work during the pandemic – likely to alleviate work-family conflict. Alas, altering paid work schedules was also associated with higher levels of distress.
Exacerbated Gender Disparities in Stress and Mental Health?
Gender disparities in mental health in the US grew during the COVID-19 pandemic, due to steeper declines in women’s mental health than men’s. This is likely due, in part, to the fact that women reported more feelings of social isolation, more job loss, more work-family conflicts, and are more susceptible to the negative effects of domestic labor on mental health than men. Though gender inequalities in mental health increased in the US, this was not the case everywhere. Indeed, cross-national examinations of psychological well-being reveal possible reasons why inequalities increased in the US and not in other places and also suggest interventions to protect mental health and reduce mental health disparities moving forward.
Studies from the US, UK, Canada, and Australia reveal that gender disparities in mental health grew in the US and UK but not in Canada and Australia. Moreover, the pandemic appeared to affect mental health to a lesser extent in Canada and Australia than in the US and UK. One reason for these differences is better government and worker supports in Canada and Australia. Though public policies to deal with job loss (e.g., unemployment insurance) were universally generous cross-nationally and appear central to limiting family financial loss, access to supportive leave and care policies varied. Compared to Canada and Australia, parents in the US and UK had no guaranteed access to paid parental/childcare leave, leaving parents in these countries potentially more financially, emotionally, and psychologically distressed. Domestic responsibilities increased broadly in all four countries, yet in the US and UK especially, parents had fewer resources to help them handle the increase in care and educational responsibilities.
Another reason for increased mental health disparities in the US appears to be individual and cultural beliefs about gender, work, and family. Ideal worker culture is particularly intense in the US compared to many other countries. As such, the existence of family-to-work conflict and family-to-work guilt and its ties to US parents’ distress during the pandemic is unsurprising. Additionally, though both men and women increased their performance of domestic labor during the pandemic, this increase was associated largely with increased distress among mothers only – which may be owed to persistent external and internal pressures toward intensive mothering. Indeed, in the US, beliefs in intensive mothering coupled with a lack of comprehensive public policy to limit the transmission of COVID, placed mothers at the forefront of protecting family health. Worries over COVID were especially associated with maternal stress in the US.
Discussion: What about gender inequalities in mental health beyond pandemic times?
Though the WHO declared an end to COVID-19 as a global health emergency in May 2023, levels of stress and distress in US society are as high today as they were in 2020 when the pandemic started. Questions remain, therefore, as to the long-term impact of the pandemic on mental health and gender disparities in psychological well-being. While the jury is still out as to the full impacts of the pandemic for men versus women, and the longevity of some of the changes and their sequelae, research provides a potential roadmap for how to protect mental health moving forward, especially for parents, and reduce gender disparities.
Given the centrality of work to mental health, job losses during the pandemic likely had significant, long-term impacts. Mothers in less resourced positions may have been the worst off. Women’s labor force participation rates returned to pre-pandemic levels in 2023, though the most disadvantaged mothers lagged behind as of 2022. Efforts to return mothers to the paid labor force, and avoid penalizing them for interruptions to paid work during the pandemic, are essential to promoting gender equality moving forward.
Though rates of labor force participation have returned to normal, one change that is proving to last is remote work, as a much larger portion of workdays are currently done remotely compared to pre-pandemic times. Yet, whether the new climate of remote work reduces or exacerbates gender disparities in mental health may depend on how it is used and by whom. Prior to the pandemic, a substantial proportion of parents reported elevated levels of distress linked to time deficits with their children. During the pandemic, parents were able to spend more time with children in part due to remote work, suggesting that remote work may have somewhat protected mental health, at least for mothers. Potentially, valued time with children could continue in some form post-pandemic for those with increased access to autonomy, remote work, or other expanded control over paid work commitments, leading to improvements in well-being.
At the same time, working mothers managed homeschooling much more so than fathers and were overloaded due to stretched roles of supervision and care while children were locked down. Women experience more work-family conflicts due to high expectations at home and job characteristics (i.e., less autonomy) that don’t provide them enough or the right kinds of freedom or resources. Though being home has benefits by potentially providing more parental fulfillment and easing of managing home demands, remote work by mothers coupled with primary responsibility for domestic labor, without partners also stepping up, would likely exacerbate gender mental health disparities. In contrast, remote work by fathers could reduce gender disparities broadly, including in mental health. Not only does domestic labor have little impact on men’s mental health (vs. the negative effect for women), but men who work remotely also do more domestic labor. This was true both before and during the pandemic.
In all, the pandemic allowed us to see more closely the problems with work roles, family roles and connection between them that undermine mental health in the US. Both structures and cultures need to change in order to better people’s, especially women’s, lives. Structurally both government and workplace policies matter; the exacerbated gaps between U.S. mothers’ and fathers’ mental health that emerged due to overwhelming demands in roles and work-family conflict could be mitigated by policies such as paid parental/childcare leave, increased autonomy, remote work, low-cost quality child care, a 4-day workweek and so on. Additionally, direct child credits, as well as guaranteed paid time off and vacations could go a long way to reducing work-family conflicts and stressors through provision of financial supports. Yet, despite the pandemic creating a great reflection about our values around time, relationships, and work, the culture of ideal workers and intensive parenting that contributes to higher work-family conflict and pushes mothers out of paid work may be harder to change. Regardless, more awareness and social change toward “work-family justice” is possible. Nonetheless, the conversation surrounding work-family justice and gender equality must also include a discussion of parental well-being. Parents’ mental health is important not only in its own right, but also through those they care for – our future generations. The tolls of the pandemic on mental health and gender disparities in mental health cannot be ignored.
About the Authors
Daniel L. Carlson is Associate Professor of Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Utah and Treasurer of the Council on Contemporary Families. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @DanielCarlson_1.
Melissa A. Milkie is Professor of Sociology and Chair of the graduate department at the University of Toronto. She’s also Professor Emerita at the University of Maryland, and she served recently as President of the Work and Family Researchers Network. Professor Milkie can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow her on Twitter at @melissamilkie.