An increase in gendered role conflict and its effects on wellbeing during the Covid-19 pandemic

Field maple in flower, Exeter, April 2021. Credit: C. Petersen

As the kids finally go back to school and we begin to emerge from the latest lockdown I find I finally have some time and headspace to reflect. And because it coincides with the arrival of spring, the chance to spend time outside and recover from the challenges of the recent months is even more welcome. Amongst all the many well-documented detrimental effects on people’s health and wellbeing of the Covid-19 pandemic, role conflict may sound trivial in comparison. However, with the higher levels of mental ill-health, stress and anxiety being reported now and likely to appear on the horizon, and the disproportionate effects on certain groups, there is a need to look at multiple factors affecting wellbeing and mental health going forward in a more analytical and holistic way (see e.g. this recent What Works Centre for Wellbeing report).

What is role conflict?

This is a question I had never asked before the Covid-19 pandemic happened, although it’s arguably part of most working parents’ or carers’ common experience. But after the pandemic and an extended period of lockdown, with its competing demands of working at home and home schooling, I found myself googling the term.

Role conflict is defined as: ‘A situation in which contradictory, competing, or incompatible expectations are placed on an individual by two or more roles held at the same time’. It was systematically studied as early as 1964 by Robert Kahn (and has been more often written about in business contexts).

This definition so clearly describes my life (and that of many others) during lockdown (and to a lesser extent before the pandemic). I wanted and needed to do a good job, complete project tasks with imminent deadlines and fulfil the expectations of my employer and to still be able to keep my job. But at the same time, I was the primary caregiver, and now on top of that, teacher for my children; almost solely responsible for both their education and their wellbeing (including most of their food preparation, exercise and social needs). How was I supposed to find the time (and energy) to do all of this?

And how was I going to still find time to exercise and spend time outside in order to stay sane? And what about the effects of spending hours staring at the computer screen every day, with all our work, social interaction and a great deal of our leisure time now accessed via screens? For me, this was magnifying all these pressures.

But what was so incapacitating and difficult to deal with was not actually juggling the time constraints and demands, as seemed to be the prevailing view, and what the ubiquitous and well-meaning online advice I was pointed to seemed to be trying to address (i.e. work flexibly, a.k.a. wake up before dawn, go to bed after midnight and don’t stop for a minute in between).

In fact, it was the inherent role conflict, the tension created by these competing and incompatible demands.  And if it was like that for me, how much worse was it for single parents, those caring for sick loved ones, experiencing extreme isolation, and / or those coping with loss of income or housing or trying to navigate our benefits system? (see e.g. in the Guardian and articles by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on gender parity and low income families during the pandemic).

And that’s not to say that many fathers didn’t step up to the mark, home school, and have their work disrupted – of course many did. But as has been so aptly illustrated in the press (e.g. the Guardian), the impacts have in most cases been far greater on women, sending us back decades in terms of gender equality and access to childcare etc.

A culture of scarcity

What has made role conflict particularly pervasive and far-reaching is that we are all bombarded in our workplaces and social lives (especially on social media) with the culture of scarcity (as so powerfully described by Brene Brown). We are never X enough (fill this gap in with your own adjective) – for instance, productive, sociable, funny, clever, energetic, optimistic, organised, relevant and up to date (and for women there are often the adjectives related to the added expectations around appearance and being a ‘good’ mother and home manager / cleaner here).

Role conflict and the pandemic has therefore exacerbated our lived experience of the culture of scarcity. We can’t fulfil the expectations around all of these roles at once because they are fundamentally conflicting. It is hard enough to meet the seemingly ever-increasing expectations around work alone.

So why is this? How we value unpaid work

The culture of scarcity and role conflict also link to wider societal questions of how we measure GDP and whether (and if so how) we value the extensive reproductive and household service work that women (and to a lesser extent men) do on a daily basis. In many cases we don’t even collect data on it. Some estimates suggest that unpaid household and reproductive work, if properly valued, would account for around 40-50% of GDP in high-income countries and as much as 70-80% of GDP in low-income countries, but no country is systematically collecting this data. Time-use surveys, which can be a useful way of valuing such work, are often still an underestimate as they don’t take into account on-call household work such as minding children who are asleep or caring for an adult with a serious illness at home. But if it was valued appropriately then reproductive and household service work – which is essential to the wellbeing of families, communities and societies, would dwarf most other industries (see Criado Perez’ enlightening recent book detailing this here).

The fact that women do on average more unpaid household and reproductive work also, unsurprisingly, affects their earnings and job prospects. Austerity, cuts in public services, lack of access to healthcare and childcare services, all disproportionately affect women’s unpaid workload. The pandemic has exacerbated these issues (see recent article by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and also the effects on low income families) and this is likely to have a detrimental effect not just on individual wellbeing of the few but on the wellbeing of the many.

In addition, some of our normal opportunities for moving around during our working day and spending time outside (including social contact with friends), which all help to relieve stress and brings extensive health and wellbeing benefits, have been curtailed (see my recent health and wellbeing report for more on this). This is especially the case for those living in areas without greenspace nearby.

So what are the solutions to reducing role conflict and improving wellbeing?

  1. Some of the answers may lie in fighting the culture of scarcity, in opening up conversations where people are allowed to voice such issues.
  2. Combating isolation – showing humanity and compassion towards, and connecting with others, outside, digitally or in new ways if need be.
  3. Improving access to natural environments and prioritising spending time outside, whether this is going for a walk or cycle in a natural environment, gardening or whatever you enjoy, either alone, or as an opportunity to catch up with family or friends.
  4. Acknowledging that the role conflicts that have been exacerbated during the pandemic are not just solved by working harder, or using time more wisely (and directing people to yet another website may just not resolve the issue).
  5. Constructive engagement and renegotiation / sharing of roles and tasks with whoever is in a position to help, where this is possible.
  6. Tackling pervasive inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic and the disparities in support. This includes a range of disadvantaged groups such as those in insecure work and / or accommodation, single parents, the self-employed, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups, children in low-income families, etc.
  7. Attacking barriers constraining certain groups in the employment market, such as a lack of fair employment contracts and flexible working, lack of suitable transport options, and affordability of childcare.
  8. A culture of humanity applied to our welfare system, recognising and responding to genuine need in families and individuals experiencing poverty or difficult circumstances due to the pandemic and beyond.
  9. Addressing the gendered data gap – research is now emerging on the ways different groups have been impacted during Covid-19, but more is needed both to collect this data and ultimately to address inequalities.
  10. Policy change and valuing of (predominantly) women’s household and reproductive work – recognising and valuing those everyday roles and tasks that enhance societal, community and family wellbeing.

Some of these are societal and policy changes which are much harder to achieve. So during this pandemic I have tried to concentrate on the things I can do something about – staying connected with friends and family when I can (including socially distanced walks with one person); encouraging my other half to do more of the cooking; and prioritising being outside in the form of a walk or cycle or run every day. For me spending time outdoors has meant I can start to think about facing all the other stuff I have to do.


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