The long tail of the Covid pandemic

A US survey says dads who worked remotely during Covid were more stressed than mums. Why was that? And what is the longer-term impact of that stress?



Surveys are everywhere these days, but a recent US one caught my eye. It was from Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and found that 40 percent of parents who worked remotely during the pandemic reported higher parenting stress compared with only 27 percent of parents who worked onsite. So far so expected. Anyone who has done it knows that working and doing homeschooling/childcare was/can be very stressful, depending on your work and the age of your children as well as other factors.

The survey also showed a distinct gender difference – fathers who worked from home were twice as likely to report that parenting was stressful all or most of the time compared to fathers who worked onsite. Parenting stress for mothers who worked at home was slightly higher, but it did not reach statistical significance, said the report.

This doesn’t really chime with what we were hearing from mums. Stress was pretty much widespread and other research shows mums were shouldering more of the homeschooling/childcare responsibilities. So what might explain the higher stress levels in dads? Is it because their employers made less allowances for them because they still think childcare is something that is mainly women’s responsibility? Is it that women are more used to doing all the home stuff alongside work generally because they are the ones who tend to be doing it even if most of us hadn’t had to simultaneously work and teach/entertain for long stretches before Covid outside of illnesses? Do we get better at handling ‘juggling’ simply because we do more of it?

I remember having a long conversation with my flatmate back in the day. His ‘theory’ was women are ‘naturally’ better at multi-tasking and therefore could cope with working and doing more of the housework [the conversation started with a discussion of who should do the hoovering…]. The same goes for looking after babies. I feel like both my partner and I were similarly clueless when our first daughter was born, but because I was with her most of the day during maternity leave I was better at knowing what she needed over time. You learn by doing.

Most people don’t enjoy multi-tasking. They do it because they have to. On my report card when I was at primary school it said ‘Mandy is a glutton for work, but she needs to focus more’. I feel what may have been seen as a negative has become a positive in later life, even if I burn the toast in the process of not focusing on just the one thing. But I’m still not good at it. It still stresses me out.

And while the US survey focuses on feelings during Covid, what about the long-term tail end of all that stress? A report out this week from the Fawcett Society and TotalJobs shows 11% of working mothers with very young children have left a job in recent years due to the challenges of balancing work and childcare and nearly a fifth have considered leaving. Two fifths have turned down a promotion due to childcare issues. Dads are also affected, but slightly less so. Single mums and those from minority backgrounds are significantly more affected. Interestingly in this survey dads were more likely to have flexible working requests approved than mums.

It shouldn’t be a competition between mums and dads. It should be about collaboration, with family support important across the board. We seem to still have a long way to go to modernise the way we work in a way that takes account of the everyday stresses on a large section of employees, whether that is how we work or the infrastructure needed to help us do it.

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