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Burden of Unpaid Labor Worsens Women's Mental Health


A burden of unpaid labor increases depressive or psychological distress symptoms in women, a new study suggests. Moreover, the gender gap in childcare and household chores widened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Research from the University of Melbourne, published in the Lancet Public Health, reviewed 14 studies that included more than 66,800 participants worldwide. Five of these studies examined unpaid labor (inclusive of care), nine examined housework time and, of these, four also examined childcare.

Researchers found that in 11 of the 14 studies, women self-reported increased depressive or psychological distress symptoms with increasing unpaid labor demands. However, only three out of a possible 12 studies reported any negative association for men.

"This double burden of paid and unpaid work exposes women to greater risk for overload, time poverty, and poorer mental health. Crucially, women are also routinely trading off paid work hours to meet their disproportionally high unpaid labor responsibilities," research lead Jen Ervin said.

The pandemic widened the gap

The study authors emphasize that women are doing more unpaid labor "in every geographical and time setting," and the US is no exception.

The Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) analysis of data from the 2018 American Time Use Survey reveals that on an average day, women in the US spend 37 percent more time on unpaid household and care work than men.

The difference is stark among those aged 25–34 when many families are raising young children, and some are also caring for aging parents. Men in this age range spend 3.9 hours per day on this work compared with 8.0 hours for women.

The gap emerges in the early days. For example, the Pew Research Center analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data in 2019 revealed that girls, on average, spend 38 minutes a day helping around the house during the school year, compared with 24 minutes a day for boys. The analysis also shows that girls spend more than twice as much time cleaning up and preparing food as boys (29 minutes vs. 12 minutes).

Researchers at the University of Melbourne say that doing most of the world's unpaid work comes not only with mental health costs but also with the economic penalty for women. The COVID-19 pandemic increased gender inequality in the labor force, with troubling consequences for mothers.

Researchers looked at the US's full population of dual‐earner and married heterosexual parents from February to April 2020. They found that mothers of children under 13 had a larger reduction in work hours than fathers during the COVID‐19 peak, as they were trying to meet new caregiving demands.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Working Paper, using the US monthly Current Population Survey data, less educated women with young children were the most adversely affected during the first nine months of the pandemic.

"The loss of employment of women with young children due to the burden of additional childcare is estimated to account for 45 percent of the increase in the employment gender gap, and to reduce total output by 0.36 percent between April and November 2020," the IMF Working Paper says.

Resources:

The University of Melbourne. Double burden of paid and unpaid labour leading to poorer mental health in women, review finds.

Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Providing Unpaid Household and Care Work in the United States: Uncovering Inequality.

National Library of Medicine. COVID‐19 and the gender gap in work hours.

Pew Research Center. The way U.S. teens spend their time is changing, but differences between boys and girls persist.

IMF Working Paper. COVID-19 She-Cession: The Employment Penalty of Taking Care of Young Children.

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