The Pandemic Is Draining The Life Out Of Women
Shedding much-needed light on the immense mental health impact women continue to face during COVID-19
Not one country has been unaffected by the coronavirus since the pandemic started — and women around the world have been impacted most. The pressures of multi-tasking — simultaneously working from home, helping children learn at home, and keeping the household running — are taking their toll, draining the life out of women and detrimentally affecting their mental health.
According to the NYTimes, Vice President Kamala Harris said that the 2.5 million women who have left the work force since the beginning of the pandemic constituted a “national emergency” that could be addressed by the Biden administration’s coronavirus relief plan. That number, according to Labor Department data, compares with 1.8 million men who have left the work force. For many women, the demands of child care, coupled with layoffs and furloughs in an economy hit hard by the pandemic, has forced them out of the labor market. “Our economy cannot fully recover unless women can participate fully,” Ms. Harris said. The vice president painted a dire picture of the situation that millions of American women are facing during the pandemic. “In one year,” she said, “the pandemic has put decades of the progress we have collectively made for women workers at risk.”
There is no doubt that the mental health impacts on women are being felt at home and in the workplace, says Dr. Tammy Findlay, associate professor and chair of the department of political and Canadian studies at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, N.S.
For those who have lost jobs because of the pandemic, there is the added stress and anxiety of economic insecurity, with worries about emergency benefits falling short or running out and the prospects of finding new employment during a public health and economic crisis.
“We know labour market participation for women, in particular, has been severely affected,” says Findlay.
For example, many women had to move their business to the back burner to homeschool their children last spring. Caregiving professions, which are female-dominated and racialized, already had high levels of stress, which is exacerbated as protocols and threats around health and safety in the workplace have ramped up, adds Findlay.
“Women have borne most of the job losses in the pandemic, and that has serious effects for mental health and wellbeing,” says Jane Ledwell, executive director for the P.E.I. Advisory Council on the Status of Women.
Women who are still working are often in front-line roles that continue to put them at greater risk of exposure to disease. Women who live in fear of violence or who live with violence at home are facing narrower ranges of choices and feel a sense of despair.
“Women’s disproportionate share of work in the home, especially caregiving work, is mentally and emotionally exhausting, especially if loved ones are struggling with anxiety and worry, anguish and despair,” explains Ledwell. To add to this is the stress of winter, which can be difficult for mental health for many reasons.
“It is stressful balancing work and family relationships when sick days and storm days could both keep you away from paid work or keep you in the house,” she says.
The unnerving prospect of longer lockdowns and at-home learning for students is always on the horizon. It’s the right public health response to an outbreak, but the possibility leaves many women feeling a constant sense of anxiety and stress. These stress symptoms manifest themselves as sleeplessness, fatigue, and exhaustion.
Women feel on edge.
For many, planning and organizing isn’t easy at the best of times, but the uncertainty makes it more challenging to have a regular life, especially with children.
“Some of the women I work with tell me that they are short-tempered when they are in a grocery store, and someone doesn’t follow the arrows or isn’t distancing,” says Steudler. “For them, that person who bends the rules a bit can significantly impact their lives and a future lockdown. It’s in those moments when they feel that not everything is OK.”
On top of that, women are craving connections. Interactions with social circles have changed or moved online. Steudler says she feels feel tired at the thought of having one more online call. She’s craving an in-person exchange and connection with friends.
Many with caregiving responsibilities are keeping their social circles extra small to help make space for children or elders to meet their social needs. “Self-sacrifice is a deeply ingrained gender norm for women, but at this stage, a lot of women I know are failing to meet their social needs and are feeling lonely and isolated and becoming depressed,” says Ledwell.
Grief and stress can come from loss — not just of a loved one, but from having lost a job, social connections, and a sense of security. Some have lost the drive to plan for the future because of the uncertainty.
Research indicates that levels of depression have been on the rise since the pandemic, says Findlay, as well as higher levels of alcohol consumption among women. Not only are there higher rates of gender-based violence during COVID-19, but there are also distinct challenges accessing support services, she says.
According to CNN, in Japan, more people died from suicide last month than from COVID-19 in all of 2020 — and women have been impacted most. Eriko Kobayashi, 43, has written books on her mental health struggles and has a steady job at an NGO. But the coronavirus is bringing back the stress she used to feel. “My salary was cut, and I cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “I constantly feel a sense of crisis that I might fall back into poverty.”
Experts have long been warning that the pandemic could lead to a mental health crisis. Mass unemployment, social isolation, and anxiety are taking their toll on people globally, particularly women. In a global study of more than 10,000 people, conducted by non-profit international aid organization CARE, 27% of women reported increased challenges with mental health during the pandemic, compared to 10% of men.
Compounding this is that women feel they don’t have the right to feel their own anxiety, stress, and grief. Women need not be ashamed to acknowledge they have the right to their feelings — it’s not a matter stigma. “If we don’t allow ourselves to feel our feelings, the long-term harm could be serious,” she says.
Women need to take time out for themselves to help relax their minds, like mindfulness, meditation, breathing exercises, and artmaking. “We need to practice self-care, connect with others, go for walks, and seek help if feeling disconnected,” says Steudler. Being more creative in self-care is important. Practice yoga, meditation, and breathing techniques, find books that help you understand the philosophy of what‘s happening in the world.
As a community, we must also help each other during these stressful times. Checking in with friends and family members that you know are struggling. A small gesture of bringing a meal, taking their kids for an hour to a park (if possible), or sending a card of encouragement can make a big difference. “Listen with an open heart and don’t judge their feelings,” says Steudler.
Being of service to others can also be helpful. Reach out to friends and family, and have conversations. “Being able to laugh with people who care about me and whom I care about dissolved a lot of the blues,” she says.
In this case, the pandemic has caused people to not only realize how interdependent they are, but has provided the opportunity to finally open dialogue about the serious, negative physical and mental health impacts on women during these unprecedented times. It would also be safe to say that although women were already impacted by the unequal share of unpaid, household work and family responsibilities, the pandemic has drastically exacerbated the already excess burden that women around the world are dealing with.
The impact may continue to take a toll on women’s health years past this pandemic, well into the future, which is why we need to actively recognize these impacts and take action to support women for a healthier and brighter future for all.