Mental health declines for working Australian women during COVID-19


Margo Lydon

Two in three working Australian women reported experiencing a mental health condition, with women under 25 years the worst affected (73.3%). Women’s personal wellbeing declined significantly more than men during the global pandemic (27.5% vs 20.9%), according to research released today by SuperFriend.

Using data from Australia’s largest workplace mental health study, Indicators of a Thriving Workplace, Gender Identity Spotlight 2020 is a snapshot of mental health and wellbeing in the Australian workforce based on their gender.

The report found that women under 25 years have the most experience with mental health conditions experienced greater job insecurity than men in the last year (27.1% vs 25.7%). While the pandemic proved to be a turbulent time for many working Australians, more women ended up working fewer hours than usual, but not by choice (26.7% vs 22.1% for men).

The proportion of Australian workers who found themselves with no paid work peaked in April, with women impacted nearly twice as much as men (11.3% vs 6.9%).

Unsurprisingly, a higher number of women considered switching careers to a different industry and undertook work-related study or training, when compared to men.

Commenting on the findings, SuperFriend CEO, Margo Lydon, said: “The events of 2020 have turned workplaces upside down, but the pandemic has been particularly hard on women. It has intensified the challenges that women already faced, such as balancing paid work and carers’ responsibilities, and the emotional toll of financial insecurity, significantly impacting their mental health and wellbeing.”

Impact on productivity was profound 

Women’s productivity was more deeply impacted by the pandemic than men’s, both positively and negatively.

On one hand, their productivity was boosted substantially more than men’s due to relaxed expectations around how they should look at work.

Nearly 35% of women said their productivity improved by wearing more comfortable clothes, with 28.5% reporting a productivity boost due to relaxed grooming expectations (both around 10 percentage points higher than men).

“For many women, particularly those in corporate environments, getting dressed for work can be an expensive and time-consuming affair. According to a grooming survey, women spend an average of 27 minutes per day getting ready for work, which equates to 10 full working days across the year[1]!

“Workplaces pivoting to a work-from-home set up overnight turned out to be a blessing in disguise for many of us. Remote work reduced or eliminated commuting times substantially, boosting productivity for two in five women and freeing up time to exercise, sleep and connect with loved ones instead,” said Ms Lydon.

On the flip side, the report found that women’s productivity was hindered more than men’s due to COVID-specific anxiety and job security concerns. 20.2% of women reported their productivity was negatively impacted by family caring responsibilities compared to 16% of men.

“With homeschooling, heightened care needs of older persons and stress associated with general living expenses, the pandemic and lockdowns were not experienced equally.

“Financial insecurity, in particular, has a cumulative impact over time. Fewer women than men in our survey were truly confident that they will have enough superannuation and other resources to comfortably retire[2],” she added.

Inaction more problematic for women

According to the report, workplaces are closer to thriving for men than women across every domain, and the gap is widening. 

47.4% of men report their workplace is taking tangible action in 2020 (up from 43.9% in 2019), compared to only 42% of women (down from 42.4%).

Women are trailing behind men on 85% of the 40 indicators of a thriving workplace, up from 65% in 2019. Men working part-time recorded the strongest increase in their overall thriving workplace score (3.2 points), whereas women working casually recorded the weakest gain (1.3 points).

Therefore, its unsurprising that women are less optimistic than men that their workplace will invest in mental health and wellbeing in the near future, and that the state of mental health and wellbeing in their workplace will improve anytime soon.

Ms Lydon confirmed the widest gap was in the policy domain, as declining numbers of women believe that their organisation has effective policies and practices against workplace bullying and harassment.

Women consider the biggest barrier to investing in workplace mental health is that there are ‘more important business issues to address’, and this perception has grown over the last year.

“This highlights a real need for organisations to take greater steps to make their workplaces more supportive, inclusive and accountable spaces for all workers.

“Every crisis presents an opportunity. There are some clear opportunities for employers to better engage with their female workforce through a more flexible and empathetic approach.

“This is our call to corporate Australia. Through the years, we’ve made some great strides in gender diversity and inclusion, with more women in the workforce and in leadership roles. Let’s not allow COVID or any other force to take that away from us,” she concluded.

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