Women are carrying the mental health burden of ‘worry-work.’ It’s time to stop focusing on stigma and talk more about solutions

Right from the pandemic’s outset, we knew mental health was going to be another COVID casualty.How could it not be? The staggering combination of job loss, social isolation and anxiety was bound to devastate many who sheltered at home. For front-line workers, it meant taking on more work, as well as risk.What was perhaps less easy to foresee was the degree to which it would effect women, who, according to a number of indicators, are struggling with mental health disproportionately.Some of this is owing to the fact that more front-line workers are women. There’s likely another factor, though, and that’s the toll of “worry-work” — labour, performed largely by women, that involves planning and caring for family members. “I think there are a couple of really telling studies that came out recently,” says Andrea Gunraj, vice president of public engagement at the Canadian Women’s Foundation. “There was one study that found that mental health concerns for women are a great deal heavier right now just because of all the different stressors that women have.”Gunraj continues: “Women are more concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on themselves and their families because they are disproportionately carrying care work, so the anxiety level just goes up.”Abacus Data discovered in an early study that women were 15 per cent more likely to be worried about COVID-19 then men. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) describes the gender disparity as a “mental health gap” and, differentiating it further, reported that parents were more likely to say they’ve experienced depression.Finally, data from Express Scripts Canada seems telling, given that one of the biggest spikes in demand for antidepressants last year coincided with the back-to-school season, with more women seeking prescriptions than men.“Whether it’s called maternal thinking or emotional labour or nurturance or whatever, worry-work has always been a very gendered labour,” says Andrea O’Reilly, professor at York University’s School of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies. “Women have always been carrying the household in their head, whether it’s remembering ‘I have to get a bag of milk’ or ‘Susie isn’t eating, is that anorexia?’ and I think that would be tenfold since the pandemic hit because there’s just more to worry about.”Plus, O’Reilly says, pre-pandemic, there were people sharing the care workload — teachers, daycare workers or camp counsellors. Women who are home-schooling or have lost daycare have less support now.O’Reilly continues: “And there’s no escape from it, right? Everybody is literally locked up in the same four walls, and, the evidence is there, so we do know children are suffering from mental health problems. So of course mothers are worried and overwhelmed and concerned about their childrens’ well-being.” Making the division of worry-work more equitable is really difficult, since it’s almost completely invisible labour. You can say, “I made dinner, so it’s your turn to do the dishes,” a lot more easily than it is to ask for a tradeoff because you thought it’d be a good idea to check in on Aunt Sally after her knee surgery.Since there’s no stack of clean laundry to point to, a lot of worry-work isn’t even considered “work,” but, it’s integral to a functioning family and it is often extremely emotionally taxing — especially now that it’s becoming a factor in people’s fatigue. On the upside, there’s a little more awareness of it, as well as other stressors on mental health. “I’ve been in this field for a long time and there are definitely more people talking about mental health than they ever have before,” says Nazilla Khanzou, associate professor, School of Nursing and Women’s Health Research Chair in Mental Health at York University’s Faculty of Health. “What COVID-19 has done is to really push the mental health discourse into the mainstream because it’s impacting folks in different ways than ever before.”Although it’s hard to fix the uneven distribution of worry-work in families, Khanzou says there is plenty that can be done to support women’s mental health and, since we have more awareness of it right now, this is the moment to be ambitious and focus on “upstream” approaches by taking a community mental health approach that addresses a more holistic sense of well-being.“Both now, and after the pandemic is over, it’s the people with precarious jobs that are the most at risk,” she explains. “That’s why Canada did relatively well in its immediate response by providing CERB and other benefits at the outset. Those were such good policies. When we think of mental health, we don’t often make a link to a policy like CERB, but it’s a great example of a really upstream approach to mental health.”In terms of other preventative policies, the biggest one Khanzhou champions is implementing a public mental health system, which would allow people to access therapy easily and affordably before conditions worsen. And, since women experience poverty in

Women are carrying the mental health burden of ‘worry-work.’ It’s time to stop focusing on stigma and talk more about solutions

Right from the pandemic’s outset, we knew mental health was going to be another COVID casualty.

How could it not be? The staggering combination of job loss, social isolation and anxiety was bound to devastate many who sheltered at home. For front-line workers, it meant taking on more work, as well as risk.

What was perhaps less easy to foresee was the degree to which it would effect women, who, according to a number of indicators, are struggling with mental health disproportionately.

Some of this is owing to the fact that more front-line workers are women. There’s likely another factor, though, and that’s the toll of “worry-work” — labour, performed largely by women, that involves planning and caring for family members.

“I think there are a couple of really telling studies that came out recently,” says Andrea Gunraj, vice president of public engagement at the Canadian Women’s Foundation. “There was one study that found that mental health concerns for women are a great deal heavier right now just because of all the different stressors that women have.”

Gunraj continues: “Women are more concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on themselves and their families because they are disproportionately carrying care work, so the anxiety level just goes up.”

Abacus Data discovered in an early study that women were 15 per cent more likely to be worried about COVID-19 then men. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) describes the gender disparity as a “mental health gap” and, differentiating it further, reported that parents were more likely to say they’ve experienced depression.

Finally, data from Express Scripts Canada seems telling, given that one of the biggest spikes in demand for antidepressants last year coincided with the back-to-school season, with more women seeking prescriptions than men.

“Whether it’s called maternal thinking or emotional labour or nurturance or whatever, worry-work has always been a very gendered labour,” says Andrea O’Reilly, professor at York University’s School of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies. “Women have always been carrying the household in their head, whether it’s remembering ‘I have to get a bag of milk’ or ‘Susie isn’t eating, is that anorexia?’ and I think that would be tenfold since the pandemic hit because there’s just more to worry about.”

Plus, O’Reilly says, pre-pandemic, there were people sharing the care workload — teachers, daycare workers or camp counsellors. Women who are home-schooling or have lost daycare have less support now.

O’Reilly continues: “And there’s no escape from it, right? Everybody is literally locked up in the same four walls, and, the evidence is there, so we do know children are suffering from mental health problems. So of course mothers are worried and overwhelmed and concerned about their childrens’ well-being.”

Making the division of worry-work more equitable is really difficult, since it’s almost completely invisible labour. You can say, “I made dinner, so it’s your turn to do the dishes,” a lot more easily than it is to ask for a tradeoff because you thought it’d be a good idea to check in on Aunt Sally after her knee surgery.

Since there’s no stack of clean laundry to point to, a lot of worry-work isn’t even considered “work,” but, it’s integral to a functioning family and it is often extremely emotionally taxing — especially now that it’s becoming a factor in people’s fatigue. On the upside, there’s a little more awareness of it, as well as other stressors on mental health.

“I’ve been in this field for a long time and there are definitely more people talking about mental health than they ever have before,” says Nazilla Khanzou, associate professor, School of Nursing and Women’s Health Research Chair in Mental Health at York University’s Faculty of Health. “What COVID-19 has done is to really push the mental health discourse into the mainstream because it’s impacting folks in different ways than ever before.”

Although it’s hard to fix the uneven distribution of worry-work in families, Khanzou says there is plenty that can be done to support women’s mental health and, since we have more awareness of it right now, this is the moment to be ambitious and focus on “upstream” approaches by taking a community mental health approach that addresses a more holistic sense of well-being.

“Both now, and after the pandemic is over, it’s the people with precarious jobs that are the most at risk,” she explains. “That’s why Canada did relatively well in its immediate response by providing CERB and other benefits at the outset. Those were such good policies. When we think of mental health, we don’t often make a link to a policy like CERB, but it’s a great example of a really upstream approach to mental health.”

In terms of other preventative policies, the biggest one Khanzhou champions is implementing a public mental health system, which would allow people to access therapy easily and affordably before conditions worsen. And, since women experience poverty in greater numbers than men, making treatment affordable would go a long way toward addressing women’s mental health.

“When we talk about a public mental health system, what we’re emphasizing here is that prevention really is the most cost-effective way to go when it comes to mental health,” Khanzou explains. “Why not prevent someone from getting to the point where they need to be hospitalized, which is expensive and, instead, provide accessible services in the community before they get to a place where they have to leave their job and be away from family?”

None of this is going to happen by texting about mental health for a day. The stigma, at this point, is probably less of a problem than the funding and political will. But investment in prevention is always more economical than trying to tackle the problem from the other direction.

It’s time to talk about that, instead.

This week, to mark International Women’s Day, we are running a series called ‘Women in the Pandemic,’ which examines the social impacts of COVID-19 on the lives of women.

Christine Sismondo is a Toronto-based writer and contributor to the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @sismondo

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