The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the lives of workers all over the globe. Although the ongoing crisis is affecting both women and men, working women face specific challenges.
Firstly, women have been disproportionally affected by job and income losses. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO, Publication 2020), before the COVID-19 pandemic, 44.3 per cent of women worldwide were in employment, compared to 70 per cent of men. Nevertheless, women face a higher risk of economic insecurity due to gender gaps in pay, hours worked and type of employment contract (Joint ILO-Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development -OECD- Women at Work report 2020). Also, there is a great concentration of women in sectors that have been considerably affected by the COVID-19 crisis (i.e. accommodation and food services, real estate, business and administrative activities, manufacturing, and the wholesale/retail trade). In particular, 41 per cent of total female employment, compared to 35 per cent of total male employment.
In a recent update (ILO Briefing note, 2021), the ILO reported that women have been more affected than men and, globally, employment losses for women stand at 5 per cent, versus 3.9 per cent for men.
Secondly, according to the OECD (Policy Responses to Coronavirus, 2020), women also provide most of the unpaid work at home (i.e. child care and/or care for adult relatives even when employed). Before the crisis, women in the EU spent 13 hours more than men every week on unpaid care and housework (COVID-19 and gender equality, European Institute for Gender Equality, EIGE).
Certainly, the pandemic is taking a heavy toll on the daily lives of many working women and, balancing work and home life is a major challenge. As a result of lockdown restrictions and closures, as well as relatives possibly getting sick, the unpaid workload of women is likely to increase. Organisations should take a step forward by promoting work-life balance and flexible work arrangements to avoid a great setback in reaching gender equality in the workplace.
Furthermore, the combined effect of paid and unpaid work that women have to deal with increases women’s mental load (i.e. women usually act as “home managers”; organising and planning chores is a full-time job). According to the American Psychologist Association (APA) Commitee on Women in Psychology (2020), there are actions women can take to manage work-life balance during the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance:
- Seeking help from others in work and life environments to share the load.
- Engaging in self-care.
- Establishing dedicated spaces for certain activities (e.g. workspace).
- Simplifying task lists into what is the highest priority, allowing flexibility.
- Staying connected.
- If you are a mother, involving your children in your planning can help (e.g. creating a structured but flexible schedule and allowing your children to make choices about that structure so they have buy-in).
Thirdly, an undeniable fact is that women are playing a key role in the health care response to the COVID‑19 crisis. In most countries, women make up the vast majority of the health care workforce. Around 136 million workers are in the health and social work sectors, and of these, 96 million are women (ILO, Publication 2020). In the European Union (EU), women make up 76 per cent of this sector (COVID-19 and gender equality, EIGE).
Health care workers, especially those working at the frontline, not only have a higher risk of being infected with COVID-19 but also have to deal with a high workload, long working hours and, a lack of protective materials. Also, they are exposed to intense emotional stress; the negative effects of stress can impact mental health and can contribute to depression and anxiety. For instance, early reports in China showed that a considerable proportion of health care workers experienced symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and distress, especially women, nurses, and frontline health workers (Lai, J. et al., 2020). Therefore, there is an urgent need to improve the resilience, wellbeing and mental health of health and care workers.
In this line, the EU has funded several projects to investigate the long-term behavioural and health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of them is RESPOND (Improving the PREparedness of Health Systems to Reduce Mental Health and Psychosocial Concerns resulting from the COVID-19 PaNDemic), which offers the opportunity to implement scalable psychological interventions developed by the World Health Organization (WHO) into a stepped care system that could respond to the psychological needs of frontline health workers affected by the pandemic in European countries.
Another matter of great concern is that, as reported by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women, 2020a), the existing crisis of violence against women and girls (VAWG) is likely to worsen due to the pandemic. Emerging data shows that since the outbreak of COVID-19, reports of VAWG, and particularly domestic violence (DV), has intensified. Moreover, substantial numbers of women who are working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic are likely experiencing domestic violence and, are at increased risk of developing mental health problems.
According to the joint brief of ILO-UN Women (2020), keeping women safe in their employment, including when working remotely, with the possibility of financial independence is key to helping women survive DV. To meet this goal, employers can implement the following early interventions: carrying out prevention, risk assessments and safety planning; offering support; recognition of signs of violence; fostering a workplace culture where survivors can disclose violence and stay safely in their work; raising awareness within the organisation.
On top of this increase in DV, violence against health care workers is frequent. Reports of verbal aggression, physical violence and sexual harassment have grown in recent years (UN Women, 2020b). Furthermore, during the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of incidents of violence and harassment have been reported (Devi S., 2020). According to a recent analysis published in the BMJ journal (George, A. et al., 2020), violence against female health workers is the tip of the iceberg and, addressing gender power relations is crucial to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of health workers and the ability to deliver quality care.
Finally, although research is essential to understanding which factors influence health and wellbeing at the workplace, few studies have taken into account the gender dimension. This is especially important as women and men experience differences in the risk of various mental disorders.
According to the WHO, gender differences occur particularly in the rates of common mental disorders (i.e. depression, anxiety and somatic complaints). The gender-specific risk factors for these mental disorders are socioeconomic disadvantages, low income and income inequality, continuous care responsibilities, and gender-based violence. Not only do they affect women disproportionately, but they have been greatly affected by the ongoing crisis.
EMPOWER (The European Platform to Promote Wellbeing and Health in the workplace) aims to develop a free eHealth platform to address mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, taking into account the gender perspective.
This project will consider the real jobs that women and men do and the corresponding differences in exposure (e.g. working hours and working conditions). It will also consider gender-related differences in coping with psychological distress by adapting the intervention programme.
EMPOWER will integrate gender into research from the very development of the intervention to the ultimate analysis and dissemination of results.
To conclude, it is essential to bear in mind that the COVID-19 crisis is worsening existing gender inequalities. Policymakers and organisations should consider a gender approach when making important decisions during and after the pandemic, including the promotion of mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. Finally, research in this field should be gender-sensitive.
Kerry Rodríguez McGreevy, PhD
WHO Collaborating Centre for Mental Health Services Research and Training
Department of Psychiatry. School of Medicine. Universidad Autónoma de Madrid
American Psychologist Association (APA) Committee on Women in Psychology. (October 2020). How working women can manage work-life balance during COVID-19. http://www.apa.org/topics/covid-19/working-women-balance
Devi, S. (2020). COVID-19 exacerbates violence against health workers. The Lancet, 396(10252), 658.
European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE). COVID-19 and gender equality. Frontline workers. https://eige.europa.eu/covid-19-and-gender-equality/frontline-workers
George, A. S., McConville, F. E., de Vries, S., Nigenda, G., Sarfraz, S., & McIsaac, M. (2020). Violence against female health workers is tip of iceberg of gender power imbalances. bmj, 371.
International Labour Organization (ILO). Publication (May 2020). The COVID-19 response: Getting gender equality right for a better future for women at work. https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/coronavirus/WCMS_744685/lang–en/index.htm
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Lai, J., Ma, S., Wang, Y., Cai, Z., Hu, J., Wei, N., … & Hu, S. (2020). Factors associated with mental health outcomes among health care workers exposed to coronavirus disease 2019. JAMA network open, 3(3), e203976-e203976.
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