Australian parents are mentally and financially stressed as COVID-19 crisis continues

by Freya Lucas

August 13, 2020

Many Australian parents are choosing to ‘err on the side of caution’ and stay home as much as possible to minimise the risk of infection to themselves and their families during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the latest Taking the Pulse of the Nation survey showing that an overwhelming majority of people (77 per cent) would prefer to stay at home compared to 20 per cent who chose to undertake normal activities.

 

The fortnightly survey, led by the Melbourne Institute tracks changes in the economic and social wellbeing of Australians, with the 15th survey 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 per cent of survey participants anticipated they would be personally impacted by the coronavirus for longer than six months. Eight weeks later, 67 per cent 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, a marker of note for those working in early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector.

“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,” Melbourne Institute’s Dr Susan Méndez said, noting that as the nation looks 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 per cent pre-COVID to 18 per cent, 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 between five and eleven years, 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 per cent of them reporting high levels of mental distress. Now they are the most distressed group: 25 per cent of fathers whose youngest child is aged from birth to four years of age, and 33 per cent of fathers whose youngest child is aged between five and eleven years 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.

 

The tracker page provided by the institute allows readers to interact with the results. 

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