Women in key worker positions across the East of England are losing sleep, spending more on household bills, and worrying about the pandemic’s impact on their children’s education and mental health, according to a survey published today by UNISON.
The findings are based on responses from over 2,000 women including teaching assistants, nurses, council workers and police staff. They provide a comprehensive insight into the emotional, physical and financial impact of Covid on critical public services staff who are keeping the region running.
The report Women Working Through the Pandemic includes the experiences of those providing a wide range of essential services in the East of England including education, health, social care and policing, either in their usual workplace (54%) or from home (34%).
It shows the desperate situations key workers are facing and why they need proper time off and a pay rise, says UNISON. The findings are released ahead of UNISON’s Empowering Women virtual conference, which opens later today with a keynote address from new general secretary Christina McAnea.
Some have described being left to pay all the bills after the death of their partner from Covid or resorting to wrapping themselves in blankets to save on electricity bills.
The results show the huge strain of working during the Covid crisis with nearly two thirds (63%) not sleeping well, more than half (53%) not taking regular breaks and a significant number (55%) feeling stressed most of the time.
The impact of the pandemic on children is also a source of anxiety for many. Of the women who are parents, three in five (60%) are worried about the mental health of their children and more than two fifths (43%) are concerned about how their education is being affected.
The emotional impact of not being able to see friends or colleagues face to face – or look after themselves properly – is a major issue. The vast majority (93%) miss catching up with close friends in person, and many (48%) do not have time to reflect and destress. More than a third (38%) say they are experiencing loneliness.
Low-paid pay the price
Women who can least afford it are paying the biggest price, according to UNISON. Of the 2,350 who took part in the survey – half (48%) – earn £18,000 a year or less, and more than a third (36%) have an annual salary of £15,000 or less.
Nearly two fifths (39%) have seen their spending increase – especially on energy, food, technology, transport and housing. Reasons include having children off school all the time, a partner working from home or being furloughed.
Three in ten (30%) say they had to dip into savings to cope with financial difficulties.
More than half (51%) said not being able to get a regular hair cut or colour is affecting how they feel about themselves. Many (35%) are not exercising regularly.
UNISON is calling on the government to ensure employers offer staff more flexibility over when they work and not to take long hours for granted, fund childcare properly so it’s affordable and accessible for key workers and maintain the £20 increase to the universal credit allowance.
UNISON Eastern lead officer for women Natalie Platts said: “Public services would have come to a standstill without the vital jobs done by women in our schools, hospitals, police forces and local councils.
“But employees are exhausted. They’re worn out from meeting work demands during Covid while caring for relatives, looking after children and dealing with debt. Those on low wages are the ones shouldering these burdens most of all.
“All women deserve better and this country’s economic recovery depends on them. But their mental and physical health is at stake.
“The government needs to step up by providing the funding and support to make their working lives easier.”
UNISON carried out the survey from 8-10 February 2021. The findings are based on 2,353 responses from women key workers in the east of England. They worked in the NHS/healthcare (30%); schools (28%); local government (15%); social care (10%); higher and further education (6%); police, justice and probation (4%); charities, voluntary organisations or housing associations (2%), and other settings including transport and energy (5%).
The figures for the east of England are drawn from a UK-wide survey of nearly 47,000 women.
Voices from the frontline
Women shared their stories with UNISON in the survey.
Jennifer*, a police support officer, said: “I’ve started suffering with anxiety. I’ve found it really hard to be out in the public, with people approaching me all day.
“We have masks, but many members of the public don’t wear them or respect social distancing. Lots of people tell me, ‘I don’t believe in it’ or ‘it’s not real’.
“It’s tough at home too. I have two teenagers. My food bills are significantly higher as the kids are home all day and they’re bored so they’re eating more.
“I have no time to myself, whether it’s at work or at home, I feel I’m always ‘on’. I’m doing shift work, then cleaning and looking after the children, then it all starts again. There’s just no space.
“My daughter has been rejected from her course at university because of the backlog of students from last year, which is really getting her down. I really worry about them. It’s a constant juggling act.”
Alice*, who works on a mental health ward as an activity coordinator, said: “I have a constant fear about coming into work. Particularly after several patients died.
“Your mental health takes a real battering. It’s like walking into the gates of hell.
“My daughter is pregnant and works in the private care sector. I’m constantly worrying I might give the virus to her or she will catch it at work. Her employer hasn’t even provided her with a risk assessment. It’s shocking. I can’t sleep at night because I’m so stressed about it all.”
Sally* is an ambulance care assistant, she says: “I was in the military and got paid danger money. In this job I’m risking my life every day for £10.94 an hour.
“The past year in the job has been harder than doing a tour in Afghanistan. It’s mentally hard. I see families crying everyday as they welcome back loved ones who they thought they may not see again – some had said their goodbyes.
“I miss having my hair and eyebrows done too. I look like I’ve been sleeping rough. I just don’t feel comfortable.”
*Names have been changed.