Is This the Next Global Pandemic?

Stress and exhaustion caused by the COVID-19 lockdown may be more dangerous for women than the virus itself.

Marina Andrejchenko/ Shutterstock
Marina Andrejchenko/ Shutterstock

In the first few weeks of COVID-19, musing over whether lockdown and working from home would be a positive or negative for gender equality seemed like an interesting, casual virtual coffee morning discussion topic. A few weeks later, it is becoming clear that it is much more sinister than that.

In the BC (Before Covid) era, we knew that women were already carrying significantly more of the burden of housework and childcare, even if they had their own career. My survey and others have shown that this has not moved in a positive direction but, indeed, in a negative one: most women are reporting doing an even higher percentage now than before. Add to this the ‘double whammy’ effect of there being more work to do in the home – more meals to prepare, more laundry, no outside help for those who had it before, plus the dreaded hours of home schooling – and the burden moves from huge to unmanageable. A recent LeanIn.org survey found that women in a full-time job with a partner and kids are spending 71 hours a week on housework and childcare, 20 hours more per week than men or the equivalent of an extra part-time job. In a NY Times poll of 2200 Americans , 70% of women said they are fully or mostly responsible for housework during lockdown and 66% said the same for childcare and home schooling.

This data and learning is being shared in different forms every day, every where and what I am struggling to understand is why it is not creating serious concern. Why is nobody doing the maths and working out that all of this work doesn’t fit into a 24 hour day and that is a major problem? The LeanIn.org survey also found that one quarter of women are experiencing severe anxiety, compared with 11% of men, and that 50% have sleep issues. 31% of women with full-time jobs and families say they have more to do than they can handle, while only 13% of men feel the same (still too many, I know).

I, for one, am extremely concerned that this is a crisis waiting to happen and that the implications for women’s physical and mental health & well-being are not being taken seriously enough. It also must be said that part of the issue is women themselves not taking this seriously enough, accepting this situation and being determined to not fail in getting through the ‘To do’ list. One female friend of mine who has a senior leadership role told me that her day starts at 7 with kids wake-up and breakfast, followed by 4 hours of home schooling, then lunch preparation, then 4 hours of work calls and emails, then dinner preparation, kids bedtime and back to the laptop to work until midnight. She shared all of this without complaint and without any expectation that she needed to ask for some help. I don’t believe she is an exceptional case – and I don’t believe that any human being has the mental or physical capacity to live and work like this on a sustainable basis.

Stress and exhaustion is sinister because it can feel manageable for a while, we can believe we have it under control but then one day, seemingly from nowhere, the cumulative lack of recuperation, rest and sleep is too much and burnout kicks in. And once a person reaches the point of burnout, it is a long road back to health: there certainly won’t be any cleaning, cooking or career progress for a while.

It is fascinating, but above all worrying, to see the way people have reacted to and protected themselves against a virus that is likely to only seriously affect a tiny percentage of the population, in contrast with the way women have refused to protect themselves from taking on a burden of responsibility and work that risks being too much for many of them to handle and with serious health consequences. And how concerning it is to see so many men and employers standing by and allowing this to happen to the women who live with and work for them.

But then it seems we are never good at seeing a global pandemic coming until it is too late.

Read more from Gill Whitty-Collins at www.gillwhittycollins.com or follow her on linkedin.com/in/gillwhittycollins

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