Parents’ mental and financial stress soars during COVID-19 crisis

Australians are preferring to “err on the side of caution” and stay at home as much as possible to minimise the risk of infection during the coronavirus pandemic.

The latest Taking the Pulse of the Nation survey shows that an overwhelming majority of people (77%) would prefer to stay at home compared to 20% who chose to undertake normal activities.

Led by the Melbourne Institute: Applied Economic & Social Research at the University of Melbourne, the fornightly survey tracks changes in the economic and social wellbeing of Australians. The 15th wave of the survey was conducted from 20-24 July.

Despite Australians’ willingness to stay home, respondents are expressing concerns that the effect of the coronavirus will not be over soon.

In mid-May, 56% of survey participants anticipated they would be personally impacted by the coronavirus for longer than six months. Eight weeks later, 67% now expect the effects to extend for longer than six months.

Additionally, after a period of decrease, the proportion of people vulnerable to mental distress has edged up since June, suggesting a sharp reversal from the downward trend.

Parents with children at home appear to be faring the worst when it comes to mental and financial stress.

“Parents represent a large proportion of the working age population,” Melbourne Institute’s Dr Susan Méndez says.

“COVID-19 is adding to the stress parents face on a daily basis – which can have flow-on effects to employment, finances and the wellbeing of partners and children. As we look toward economic recovery, governments and employers may need to consider targeted policies designed to support this specific group of Australians.”

A Research Insight paper based on the survey examines the surge in the mental distress of parents more closely, and sheds light on how the economic downturn (surge in unemployment, heightened job insecurity and financial stress) and measures put in place to limit the spread of COVID19 (widespread working from home arrangements, school closures and stringent rules around childcare and school attendance) may be affecting family life.

Mental distress has always been closely linked to employment, but this link is changed by the crisis. The research reveals that mental distress for employed Australians has risen from 7% pre-COVID to 18%, now nearly as high as the rate for those who don’t have a job. Tellingly, this increase is largely being driven by employed parents with primary-school aged children.

“Employed parents with primary-school aged children are now more distressed than non-employed parents with similar aged children. This is a striking finding, as there is usually a strong relationship between having a job and being in good mental health,” says Dr Julie Moschion, one of the authors of the research.

“This is affecting a large number of people. Nearly 1.5 million Australians are working parents of a child aged 5 to 11, and according to our estimates, over a quarter of them are currently experiencing high mental distress.”

The research shows that fathers have been particularly impacted. Pre-COVID19, men with children were the less vulnerable group, with only 7% of them reporting high levels of mental distress. Now they are the most distressed group: 25% of fathers whose youngest child is aged 0-4 and 33% of fathers whose youngest child is aged 5-11 report high levels of mental distress.

“The extra load imposed on parents has major effects for parents’ mental health. This bears great risks for their long-term productivity, their capacity to stay employed and their ability to create a safe and thriving environment for their children,” says Dr Barbara Broadway.

Interact with the results of the Taking the Pulse of the Nation survey on our tracker page.