While thousands of Australians were hit hard by the pandemic, the impacts on women were particularly seismic. Employment rates plummeted and the domestic load increased tenfold. At the peak of the COVID crisis 8 percent of women lost their jobs compared to just 4 percent of men.
However, new research shows that men wore this fallout in a surprising way, with Melbourne Institute: Applied Economic & Social Research University of Melbourne, uncovering that men’s mental wellbeing is now measurably responsive to their partner’s employment status in a way it’s never been before. 37 percent of men whose partners are jobless report mental distress, versus 27 percent of men with partners who remain employed.
Dr Barbara Broadway the author of the research believes this is largely attributable to the fact that everyone’s economic future felt uncertain during 2020-21. “Having just one income suddenly felt a lot riskier even for men who, in more normal circumstances, would have been less bothered by being the sole earner”, she told Women’s Agenda.
As such, having a dual income came to be perceived as a much-desired “insurance policy” she says, that men became far more concerned with. This is an important point, as while historically the mental health of women has been shown to be negatively affected by a partner’s involuntary job loss, men’s mental health was far less so.
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The research found that the prevalence of mental distress increased for childless men, and even more so for men with school-aged children. However, men with at least one child below school age were less likely to report mental distress if their partner was not employed, likely reflecting that in couples with very young children, one parent leaving the workforce is often planned.
But while the pandemic’s magnitudes should not be underplayed, Broadway believes that more than the risk itself of unemployment, it’s the perception of risk that altered men’s psychology.
“Even if the labour market isn’t actually going very bad, if everyone’s perception is that it’s going to be bad, it is just as stressful,” she points out. “Most regular people would not be monitoring the hard data on labour market development that closely. They’ll just be responding to a general feeling of whether things are going seemingly badly or not.”
The fact that life continues to feel uneasy even with a 93 percent national vaccination rate and industries mostly opened, is therefore the problem.
“The pandemic keeps surprising us,” says Broadway. “Particularly now in Melbourne, for example, after a long lockdown will be reopened. After a very short time of being open, suddenly Omicron happens, and everything is up in the air again. Everyone is thinking: ‘Is this going to last this time or is it not?’ And I think that leads to a level of uncertainty that might feel a lot stronger than the actual real danger,” she says.
One factor that may pose more of an actual risk than the perception of one, however, is Australia’s flimsy social safety net. The escalation in mental distress at the time that the government’s Job Keeper subsidy was repealed was significant. Broadway believes this shows Australians’ lack of confidence in attaining adequate income support when they most need it.
“I think Australia has a social safety net, for sure, but it kicks in at a very late stage and it does provide really only for people who basically have nothing,” says Broadway.
“We’ve been discussing as a society, for a long time that income support payments are not high enough for people to actually live a somewhat secure life. And I think that shows in situations like this where there was for a short while a much better social safety net in place, and then it was pulled away. People did respond to that. I think that sends a really strong signal to us that Australians do not seem to perceive our income support system as something that can actually save them in times of short-term sudden need.”
While having a dual-income family provides some assurance therefore, this is not the only factor in Australians being protected in the event of another pandemic or similar crisis. “The other way of ensuring us against these effects is to have adequate income support payments in place that will help people if these events happen to them,” says Broadway.