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Lockdowns disrupted work-leisure balance, especially for moms

The COVID-19 pandemic changed our lives and lifestyles in many ways. Established routines were disrupted by school closures, remote working, enforced isolation, stay-at-home requirements, travel restrictions and social distancing. Some of us benefited from extra time at home during lockdowns, while others had to devote more of their time to child care and housework.

In a new study from the University of Cambridge and Queen Mary University of London, a team of economists analyzed daily lifestyle changes during pandemic lockdowns in the UK.

The experts collected data from detailed, retrospective time-use diaries kept by 766 UK citizens from across the social spectrum during three points in time: the last month of normality (February 2020), the first lockdown (May 2020), and the last lockdown in March, 2021.   

The researchers considered four categories of activity and calculated the quantity of time spent by each individual occupied in each of the activity areas: employment (excluding commutes); “housework” (from shopping to childcare); leisure (e.g. hobbies or home entertainment); subsistence (meals, sleeping, personal care). They also assessed the quality of time use by focusing on factors that affect an individual’s experience of an activity, such as with whom the activity was shared and the time when the activity took place.

The results showed that, during lockdowns, individuals spent less time on employment-related activities and more time on housework. These effects were most pronounced for individuals with young children. In addition, compared with pre-pandemic times, fewer individuals were employed and this particularly affected women with young children, who were significantly less likely to be employed. 

For families with young children, parents who were employed spent an average of 43 minutes a day less on their paid job in the first lockdown, and 32 minutes less in the third, when compared with pre-pandemic times. For those without young children, there was an average decrease of 28 minutes and 22 minutes a day on paid work, respectively.

The study also exposed a gender bias in terms of changes to routine. Women with young children spent around an hour less on paid work a day than men and women without young children. During the first lockdown, the average time women spent on housework increased by 28 minutes a day, while for men the average time spent on subsistence activities (e.g. sleeping and eating) increased by 30 minutes. 

During this year’s lockdown, women spent an extra hour doing housework, and mothers of young children did 67 minutes more housework a day than fathers did. In addition, only women saw an increase in cooking and cleaning activities (time spent on caring duties was spread across genders).

The study also showed that parents often forfeited leisure time. Living with young children at home was associated with a decrease in leisure activities of almost an hour a day in both lockdowns. Those without young children actually experienced more leisure time – around an extra hour a day – but most of this was spent alone. 

When the researchers assessed the quality of time spent during lockdown – the self-reported “enjoyment” of given activities – they found that this extra time spent alone was less pleasurable to people and contributed to negative feelings concerning the effects of lockdowns. 

An additional factor that reduced the pleasure of time spent was the increase in work-related demands that occurred outside usual working hours. The third lockdown saw around 20 percent of individuals spend more time working unusual hours compared to the pre-pandemic period, which reduced the reported enjoyment of their day overall. This was particularly pronounced in people who earned £5k a month or more. These high earners also spent less time on subsistence activities during the lockdowns.

Overall, during the third lockdown, the enjoyment of activities was about five percent lower than before the pandemic. The third lockdown certainly felt a bit more miserable than the first, according to the research.

“It is no surprise that having to do more work outside of typical working hours meant that people were substantially unhappier during the third lockdown,” said study co-author Dr. Eileen Tipoe.

“And it was concerning to find that women, and especially those with young children, were disproportionately affected by lockdown – for example being less likely to be employed and the fact that only women spent more time cooking and cleaning.”

“The lockdowns resulted in drastic changes to patterns of time use, disrupting routines and blurring the distinction between work and family life,” said co-author Dr. Ines Lee. “We have hopefully seen the end of lockdowns, but our study holds lessons for hybrid working, as splitting time between home and office becomes more common.”

“Employers should promote better work-life balance in the post-pandemic world. This could include limits on emails outside working hours, home-working schedules that suit parents, and options for younger workers left isolated by reduced in-person networking.”  

The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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