Updated Apr 19, 2020 - Economy & Business

Parents' stress levels spike as pandemic drags on

Illustrated collage of a stressed woman with mask on surrounded by school books, a crying child, a laptop, and a cell phone with a virus image on the screen

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The new pressures on working parents to be full-time employees and full-time homeschool teachers while protecting their families from the pandemic are leading to exhaustion — with no end in sight.

Why it matters: Working parents make up roughly one-third of the U.S. workforce. The longer the stay-at-home orders continue, the higher the risk that these workers will be on the verge of emotional and cognitive burnout before they can return to their offices.

The big picture: The multiple stresses people are experiencing "will result in a secondary epidemic of burnouts and stress-related absenteeism in the latter half of 2020," Elke Van Hoof, a professor of health psychology and primary care psychology at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, writes for the World Economic Forum.

  • The first research about the quarantine in China found that quarantine can bring on insomnia, stress, anxiety, depression, anger, emotional exhaustion and post-traumatic stress symptoms, per a review published in The Lancet.
  • And the mental health impact was higher in cases where parents were quarantined with children, the review found. One study found 28% of parents were experiencing "trauma-related mental health disorder."

Where it stands: "This situation will have its mental health implications, and the longer it goes on, the worse it's going to get," said Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology and health at the Manchester Business School, University of Manchester.

  • This is especially true for working parents negotiating household, financial, homeschool and professional responsibilities day after day with little to no downtime, he said.
  • The constant worrying about health, children's needs and jobs will have a cumulative effect that could lead to burnout for workers, Cooper told Axios.

Between the lines: Working mothers are particularly at risk. "One thing lurking in the background is the traditional stereotype that the man is the higher wage earner," said Francine Blau, professor of economics and industrial and labor relations at Cornell University.

  • "So if you're trying to protect and prioritize one of the couple's careers in a time of economic uncertainty, there's a tendency to protect the man's career," Blau said. "All these things do contribute to higher stress on women."
  • At the end of March, 57% of mothers and 32% of fathers of kids under 18 reported worsening mental health during the pandemic, per a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. That gap was just a 5% difference two weeks earlier.

Reality check: People with lower incomes and those whose jobs or paychecks have been cut due to the coronavirus outbreak are more likely to be experiencing high psychological distress, per Pew.

"There is a whole segment of society that is suffering even more. Decisions are made for them. The core of resilience is feeling you have control over many aspects of your life. ... The more resources you have, the more control you have."
— Mary Alvord, psychologist

And for many parents, working from home isn't an option.

  • Health officials and businesses should be looking for ways to provide resources to parents and saying to them "your child is being taken care of" so they can go to work, said Sirry Alang, assistant professor of sociology and health, medicine and society at Lehigh University.
  • Parents who have chosen to stay out of work for safety reasons face stress over finding a job after the pandemic.
  • "The impact of this long term: Who are the parents who can’t go back to work?" said Alang. "Who will lose their homes to foreclosure because they had to balance parenting and work and make that difficult decision of choosing one or the other?"

Yes, but: It's impossible to predict the longer-term impact on parents and families because everyone's situation is different, said Christina Maslach, psychology professor at University of California, Berkeley who has researched job burnout.

  • Families' ability to cope with the lockdown depends on a wide range of factors, including how many children are in the household, their ages, single parent vs. spouse or partner, whether children have special needs or chronic conditions, and parents with mental health complications.

What to watch: This work-life upheaval will change the workplace when the pandemic eases, the experts we talked to said.

  • The "new normal" will probably involve more worker autonomy, more trust in remote workers' productivity, and more flexibility for parents to balance home and office demands.
  • In the meantime, Cooper said, managers will need to adjust their expectations of workers due to unprecedented emotional and mental demands, and they'll have to treat performance reviews differently to make sure they don't add to already spiking stress levels.
Go deeper