The Impact of COVID-19 on Utah Women and Work: Health Impacts

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020–21 has affected workers across the globe, and women in the workforce have been disproportionately impacted, including those who live in Utah. The pandemic affected every aspect of life, especially physical and mental health. While the fatality rate has been higher for men, the pandemic impacted women’s mental health at a higher rate with more women being laid off or furloughed in certain industries (e.g., retail, food services, hospitality), experiencing increased workloads in other sectors (e.g., healthcare, education), absorbing greater unpaid caregiving responsibilities from homeschooling and childcare disruptions, and reporting elevated instances of domestic violence. These impacts have led to increased post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression among women.  

To better understand these experiences, Utah Women & Leadership Project (UWLP) researchers conducted an extensive, in-depth survey to understand the impact of COVID-19 on Utah women and work. The survey opened for data collection in January 2021 to all Utah women aged 20 and older who were either currently employed or who were unemployed due to the pandemic. The objective was to understand more clearly the experiences of Utah women as they navigated paid work during the pandemic. This comprehensive study collected data on a wide variety of topic areas and included both quantitative and open-ended questions to capture respondents’ perceptions and experiences. This brief is the final in a six-part series on the impact of COVID-19 on Utah women and work. In this brief, we focus on qualitative findings regarding the most oft-mentioned impact of the pandemic: mental and physical health.

Causes of Mental Health Toll

Surprisingly, no clear trends emerged in the analysis of qualitative responses that mentioned a mental health toll by demographics such as age, education level, race or ethnicity, marital status, industry, or career stage. While the lack of obvious trends can also be attributed to sample limitations, the qualitative data indicate declined mental health despite demographic and workforce differences. Additionally, worsening mental health did not discriminate by situations or experiences. The mental health toll of the pandemic emerged in a wide variety of circumstances and situations. For example, those working from home felt a mental health toll, as did those going into the office. Also, the factor of children in the home made a difference: respondents caring for children felt burned out and overwhelmed, while those without children felt isolated and lonely. This section documents respondents’ perspectives of their worsening mental health. Specifically, five primary causes emerged regarding the impacts of the pandemic on mental health:

  • experiencing work pressure,
  • contracting and spreading COVID-19,
  • having children at home,
  • coping with financial instability, and
  • working essential jobs.

Effects of Mental Health Toll

The effects of mental health decline were often described by study participants as actual diagnoses, including stress, general mental health decline, anxiety, guilt and failure, burnout, fatigue, depression, and loneliness. Respondents also described indirect effects such as their work suffering, the inability to focus or be productive, feeling overwhelmed, and feeling like a failure in all areas of their lives. Five effects of the mental health impacts of the pandemic emerged as primary themes:

  • stress,
  • unspecified mental health toll,
  • anxiety,
  • burnout or fatigue, and
  • isolation or loneliness.

Physical Health Toll

Only 114 respondents (4% of the sample) mentioned a physical health toll from the COVID-19 pandemic. These physical health declines included both direct effects such as contracting the virus and indirect effects like less movement and exercise and physical problems that manifested from the stress of their experience. Three themes emerged regarding the physical health impact of the pandemic:

  • unspecified toll,
  • COVID-19 sufferers, and
  • indirect impacts.

Mental and Physical Health Benefits

Of the 2,530 respondents who responded to the open-ended question, “What benefits, if any, have you experienced (or anticipate experiencing) in your job/career because of the COVID-19 pandemic?” 43.5% mentioned the ability to work from home and/or more flexibility in their schedules. A large proportion of those respondents said the increased flexibility and remote work improved their physical and/or mental health. Of the 9% of respondents who mentioned mental and physical benefits of the pandemic, 56.9% attributed the benefits to working from home and flexibility.

Respondents felt they were better able to focus and could be more productive working from home. They appreciated the time saved from having no commute, which helped them better fit in time for valued activities, relationships, and exercise. For example, one respondent stated, “I work 100% from home now. I love it! My mental and physical health is better. Less stress, better eating habits, calmer. I’m saving money by not driving and buying clothes for work. My overall quality of life has improved dramatically. I have more quality time with loved ones. I can’t say enough about the positive impact on my life personally.” Summarizing the feelings of many respondents, one woman said, “The freedom of working from home has been huge. I didn’t realize how much stress was involved in physically being at the office. I feel I’ve been better able to care for myself and my household by physically being in my home more often.” Two related themes emerged from the participants’ responses:

  • mental health benefits and
  • physical health benefits.

Conclusions and Recommendations

This research brief sheds light on the health effects of COVID-19 on working women. Because of the health risks of COVID-19 and the safety precautions implemented to decrease risk, women either lost their job, were sent home to work, or risked their health by interacting with coworkers and/or the public. For those who experienced remote work, some enjoyed the extra time for family, activities, and exercise. More often, however, women felt mental declines from either the additional responsibility of both working at home and taking care of their family or feeling isolated and lonely. Utah women working with the public felt anxiety about contracting and spreading the virus and, in some cases, felt a lack of support from the community regarding health risks. While some experienced decreased physical health from contracting the virus, others faced physical problems that manifested from the stress of their experience.

There are important actions that can support the mental and physical health of Utah women in the workforce. First, all women, especially women of color and those with low household income levels, need better access to mental health care to heal and thrive. Employers can ensure adequate mental health coverage in insurance options and foster an atmosphere that acknowledges and supports mentally healthy activities and lives. Legislators can support mental health coverage amendments, mental health days for students and employees, and overdose and suicide prevention programs.

Second, flexible and remote work options benefit many women and families, evidenced by those who said it led to a healthier work/life balance, increased productivity, and provided more time for relationships, preferred activities, and exercise. Employers can continue to offer a work-from-home option for applicable positions or, if the position requires an office presence, allow for flexibility in work hours. Research has shown that empathetic and supportive policies attract and retain employees, along with increasing employees’ psychological safety, organizational commitment, and productivity. Utah state and local governments can implement policies that support Utah women in terms of childcare, flexible work arrangements, and family leave policies.

The pandemic has impacted nearly every aspect of Utah women’s lives, which, for most, includes their physical and mental health. Ensuring that women can thrive mentally and physically is important moving forward. As Utah leaders and residents better understand the challenges that Utah women have faced related to COVID-19, a more equitable recovery can be crafted. This will, in turn, strengthen our businesses, families, communities, and the state as a whole.

To learn more about the impact of COVID-19 on Utah women and work, including health impacts, read the full brief.

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