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Working moms faced higher stress levels during pandemic, Utah study finds

Preschool students play a game at A to Z Building Blocks in Orem on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020.

Preschool students play a game at A to Z Building Blocks in Orem on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. (Jeffrey D. Allred)



SALT LAKE CITY — National studies have shown that many mothers of young children faced disproportionate impacts in their work during the COVID-19 pandemic, but a new study illustrates how moms in the Beehive State fared.

"Raising kids has been hard during the pandemic, especially as schools and day cares shut down and parents, especially women, were forced to adjust to that additional pressure to balance that work and life," said Susan Madsen, founding director of the Women and Leadership Project at Utah State University.

A previous report by the National Women's Law Center found that women dropped out of the workforce at a rate four times that of men during the pandemic. In Utah, jobs held by women declined at a rate more than double that of men between 2019 and 2020, according to data from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Researchers with the Women and Leadership Project hoped to "get some clues into the long-term impacts, and trying to get women back into the workforce and into leadership roles, but also the impacts of companies figuring out that maybe remote work does work," said Madsen, a lead author on the new study.

"We've heard stories from women, but here we have statistics to really look at the differences," she said.

About 3,500 women completed a survey distributed by the Women and Leadership Project with the help of nonprofits, chambers of commerce, government agencies, universities, churches and other organizations. The survey was provided in both English and Spanish.

Stress levels

Many women agreed in the survey that "the pandemic is harder on mothers than fathers," according to Madsen.

When asked whether they agreed with the statement "I am exhausted because of my additional responsibilities at home," those with children at home were more likely to agree than those without children.

Those with children under 18 were also more likely to agree that they found themselves "struggling more with balancing work and home responsibilities" than they did before the pandemic, highlighting the "added difficulty and stress associated with raising children during the pandemic, especially as schools and day cares shut down, and parents (women especially) were forced to adjust to this additional pressure in balancing work and home life," according to the researchers.

But moms with kids between the ages of 12 and 17 reported experiencing less stress — even if they also had younger children — than those who only had younger children. That signifies that parents in many homes depended on their older siblings to help look after the younger ones, Madsen said.

"Women with kids at home are the ones struggling the most and are the ones that really said they were exhausted more, and that makes sense, if they're exhausted more and they are struggling to balance that work life," she said.

While many women worked remotely, some in industries like health care needed to continue working in-person and address child care and homeschooling needs at the same time, she added.

The study also highlighted ways that women of color were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, as they were more likely to agree that they were exhausted and "struggling to balance work and home life," according to the survey.

Unsurprisingly, working women with younger children were more likely to say they found child care concerns at least somewhat stressful, while women with older kids (between 6 and 11) rated child care as a lower concern than internet and schoolwork for their kids. The data also showed that concerns over "adequate computer/internet access" became stronger when a participant's reported income was lower.

Single mothers "across the board" showed "higher levels of agreement regarding the negative outcomes of COVID-19," according to the researchers. But that was especially true for Hispanic and Latina mothers, who were more likely to report being a single parent, at 21% compared to 13% of white respondents.

"If you're a single mother, everything increases, of course, when you didn't have what we call a presence of a partner in the home … that the stress and the emotional burnout and all of those things increases," Madsen noted.

Workplace support

The study also looked into how women view their workplace cultures.

Women with children were found to be "more worried about being judged negatively because of the challenges with balancing work and home roles," according to the survey, and they said they feel less comfortable sharing those challenges. They were also more likely to consider leaving their job.

"These fears demonstrate that employers may not know what challenges working women are facing without being proactive in gathering the information, and employees are unlikely to be forthcoming unless they trust that doing so will not have a negative impact on their careers. Hence, without acting to foster trust and inclusivity, employers may risk losing valuable employees," researchers wrote.

But the pandemic wasn't all negative for moms. Many found the move to remote work a welcome change and believe it "increased inclusivity," according to the study. Madsen noted that many companies will continue allowing remote work or a hybrid work schedule due to successes they saw over the last year.

The researchers encouraged mothers' partners, when present, to share household and child care duties; employers to foster an "inclusive" environment and start conversations with employees to understand the challenges they face; and state and local governments to implement policies "that support positive changes in terms of child care, flexible work arrangements, family leave policies, gender pay gap, and career relaunching programs."

Madsen noted that the Utah Legislature, which requested the study, is working on a policy to aid with child care issues.

"Oftentimes you think these are women's issues, but that's really an old way of looking at things. They're really family issues, and they're societal issues," Madsen said.

Researchers noted the survey results aren't representative of the state as a whole in some respects, as women of color, women with less formal education, and women with lower income ranges were under-sampled compared to statewide demographics. The survey may also overrepresent women in education, according to the researchers.

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