Emerging from the (ongoing) pandemic and lockdowns, into a ‘new normal’ of mask-wearing and more local holiday plans, many of us will have shared reflections on the hardships endured since March 2020, and the impact on our mental health and wellbeing.

We know that the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities in society, but the mental health impact will also be an unequally distributed burden which we must grapple with to recover both individually and as a society. Mental health is intrinsically linked to inequality and adversity, explaining why some groups are higher at risk of developing a mental health problem, than others.

Engender and Close the Gap, two of Scotland’s leading feminist organisations, highlighted in May 2021 that women and men were impacted differently by the pandemic, showing a higher impact on women’s wellbeing, mental health and financial security. Also, that young women and disabled women as groups, were particularly impacted socially and economically which again affected their mental health outcomes.

The joint report also showed that women were almost twice as likely (59% compared to 30% of men) to report that their mental health had worsened since the start of the pandemic. Women also received less support from their employers and were twice as likely to say that support to balance childcare had decreased since the first lockdown.

The report also highlights that a majority of women have experienced a worsening of their mental health, which is likely also to be linked to the fact that 79% of Scotland’s key workers are women. There can be no doubt that the undervaluing of women’s paid and unpaid work has a very serious mental toll.

The impact on EIS members

“I am stressed constantly; I have suffered from lack of sleep and an underlying feeling of anxiousness at all times. Trying to ensure my children are still happy and educated has overtaken any time for concentrating on my own wellbeing.”

For EIS members, 77% of whom are women, the mental health impact of the pandemic will unfortunately be felt by many.

The general findings from the EIS’s One Thousand Women’s Voices project show that nearly all respondents have been adversely affected in terms of their mental health. There is no doubt that the additional pressures at this time have had, and continue to have, an adverse impact on women’s mental health and wellbeing due to the relentlessness of juggling multiple responsibilities.

  • 25.5% of the over one thousand respondents had experienced illness of someone they care for, and 21% had been physically ill themselves (twice as high for Disabled respondents).
  • 93.5% of respondents said they have experienced increased stress, anxiety, low mood or depression, and 19% had experienced bereavement.
  • 71.5% had not accessed health or emotional support (higher for BAME respondents).
  • Around one in ten members live alone, facing further isolation.

“I have had to cut out things which were important for my mental health – e.g., daily runs – in order to try and facilitate childcare and work.”

“I have no time to myself and find myself more prone to tears, worry and the feeling of helplessness. It is all very stressful.”

The overall findings about mental health show the concerning impact on women members, many of whom recorded their stories as part of One Thousand Women’s Voices.

Mental Health UK states that because they make up the majority of frontline and care workers, as well as carrying the burden of unpaid and caring work, women are already at greater risk of developing a mental health problem even before we consider the impact of the pandemic. At the end of December 2020, Mental Health UK’s survey found 63% of women were feeling more anxious and worried because of the pandemic (compared to half of UK adults generally). It is unsurprising therefore, that a sample of women in education would show an even higher rate of mental health concerns. However, it is not acceptable, and must be addressed.

Workplace strategies to address a gendered mental health crisis

Poor mental health is intrinsically linked to, and a symptom of, wider societal issues and structures – but this is rarely talked about. The burden of prevention and recovery should not be placed on the individual as this diminishes the ability of workers to organise and change the conditions that contribute to harm in the first place.

It is clear from our findings that contributing factors to women’s poor mental health include both paid and unpaid workload and the types of work that demands more emotional involvement (caring work) – and this must be recognised by the employer both as a health and safety issue, and as a gender equality issue.

To protect mental health in an unequal world, strategies must have equality at the core and recognise the root causes which prevent many from taking up support.

Strategies might include awareness raising, and monitoring stress, but more broadly – a preventative approach should include manageable workloads, flexible working for all, additional leave entitlements for parents and those with caring responsibilities, and critically, proactively promoting a culture of openness about mental health, shifting the causal narrative away from blaming individuals who are struggling to cope, towards the unjust systems that cause our mental ill health in the first place.