Parent stress linked to school closures: study
`We are going to have a fourth wave — a mental health wave'
Working parents have been struggling with high levels of stress and anxiety throughout the COVID -19 pandemic, new research from Carleton University says. And that stress increased every time schools and daycares were closed.
The high levels of stress and anxiety are worrisome and foreshadow a possible mental health crisis among working parents when the pandemic is over, said researcher Linda Duxbury. She is a professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton and Canada's most prominent researcher on worklife balance.
“We are going to have a fourth wave — a mental health wave. That is what this data is suggesting,” she said.
Importantly, the longitudinal study of Ontario working parents, found that their stress levels went up when closings of schools and daycares were announced.
“This concretely shows that any time you close schools and you close daycares you see an immediate impact on the mental health of workers,” Duxbury said.
Researchers noted that increases in infection rates, changes to schooling, daycare closures and the relaxing of social distance protocols “seem to be associated with increased levels of stress and anxiety.”
There has been focus on the negative mental health impact of closing schools on children by pediatric health officials. The research, partly funded by the Canadian Mental Health Association, suggests that the negative impact extends beyond children to entire families and will be felt by employers.
Anecdotally, there have been many reports during the pandemic of parents struggling to cope with home-schooling, parenting and working.
The research by Anita Grace, Duxbury and Andre Lanctot, will hone in on how the pandemic affected the well-being of employed parents with dependent children.
Two groups of parents were interviewed regularly between early March and late December of 2020. There were 74 participants in the first phase and 53 in the second phase of research.
The well-being report looked at reported levels of stress, anxiety and depression among the parents throughout 2020.
Among its other findings:
■ Working fathers experienced levels of stress and anxiety similar to those of working mothers during much of the study. During the last half of 2020, women reported higher levels of anxiety than men. Researchers interviewed about twice as many women as men.
■ Levels of depression were lower than levels of stress and anxiety.
■ Parents of preschoolers reported the most anxiety near the beginning of the pandemic, while parents of school-age children reported increased anxiety at the end of 2020.
■ Home-schooling was tough on parents: “From our analysis of interview data, we know that home-schooling was one of the most significant challenges for participants, so it is not surprising that participants juggling work and home-schooling had higher levels of stress and anxiety,” wrote the researchers. Some participants said the pandemic had helped them appreciate their own capacities for resilience and coping.
Duxbury said the research raises some red flags about the ongoing impact the pandemic will have on the well-being of working parents.
“It is not over until we deal with the mental health repercussions of (the pandemic). That is what worries me.”
The participants were between the ages of 35 and 55 with children under the age of 19. During each interview, participants were asked to help researchers determine “the impacts of the physical distancing protocols and the COVID-19 pandemic on people's mental health as well as their feeling and emotions about what is going on.”
The research paper quotes participants talking about “hitting the wall” during the pandemic and dealing with health concerns while trying to juggle work and schooling.
“It was really painful to try to balance everything,” said one participant, who described having “less energy, less sleep, really feeling like crap and still having to do all this stuff.”
Researchers plan to release more data on the results of the interviews about how working parents were affected by the pandemic, and the research is ongoing as the pandemic continues.