MAKE A DIFFERENCE | workplace culture / mental health / wellbeing

Are Working Mothers Bearing the Brunt of the Pandemic?

Lockdown has made it increasingly hard to balance our lifestyles but why is it working mothers who are disproportionately affected?

The UK government has had to make many changes to its healthcare system in the last year to stop the spread of coronavirus, including asking people to stay home when possible, prioritising higher-risk patients and putting many routine appointments on pause.

Now, growing evidence suggests that these necessary shifts have particularly caused women’s health issues to fall by the wayside and its working mothers who have been hit the hardest.

With confounding factors including delays in check-ups, lack of access to sexual health services, taking on more childcare duties than men, and having higher levels of anxiety around attending appointments, some forecast that the impact of the pandemic on working mothers’ health could be far-ranging.

According to an investigation carried out by specialist lawyers Bolt Burdon Kemp:

  • Women have had to balance 47% of their working hours with childcare, vs 30% for men
  • 133,000 more women than men were placed on the furlough scheme between March-August 2020
  • 1.9 million fewer women around the globe accessed reproductive health services between January and June 2020
  • The UN Population Fund have predicted 7 million unintended pregnancies globally in the months following the first lockdown

Missed appointments

Even without the pandemic, 1 in 8 women are affected with breast cancer in their lifetime, yet Bolt Burdon Kemp point out that:

  • 1 million breast cancer mammograms have been missed due to pauses between March to July 2020
  • It is estimated that 8,600 women caught in the backlog could be living with undetected breast cancer – and that their diagnosis could be delayed due to the impact of COVID-19
  • Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust found up to 600,000 smear tests failed to go ahead in the UK across April and May 2020 (in addition to 1.5 million appointments missed annually)

Thankfully, both breast cancer and cervical cancer screenings have now restarted across the UK.

However, a survey by gynaecological charity The Eve Appeal found that, of those that had have received invitations to smear tests this year, 28% have not attended them.

Extra pressures mean working mothers are even less likely to put their own health first

  • In the UK, nearly three in five of all key workers are women
  • 77% of healthcare workers are women, and 83% of social care workers are women
  • 1.2 million working women within the UK have no sick pay eligibility
  • Pre-pandemic, women already shouldered around 60% more unpaid work than men
  • The Office for National Statistics found women have had to balance 47% of their working hours with childcare, vs 30% for men

Aside from many health services having been paused, there are other contributing factors as to why women’s health issues may be neglected. A survey by Zegami – a data visualisation platform for medical imaging analysis – found women (34%) were more likely to miss seeing a medical professional than men (24%) due to anxiety surrounding the virus.14 Aside from this, other contributing factors have affected women’s abilities to put their own health first.

Hannah Travis, a Senior Solicitor in the Medical Negligence team at Bolt Burdon Kemp explains: “Many were working on the front line with their time available to attend routine appointments significantly reduced. [As well as this,] some women may have been prohibited from attending due to their childcare and or carer responsibilities, and at a time when schools or nurseries were closed – respite care was unavailable, and childcare bubbles were non-existent.”

Add to that the fact that 133,000 more women than men were placed on the furlough scheme between March-August 2020, it’s possible that women are even more likely to be the designated carer in a household, while men continue to work

What to do about your upcoming appointments

The NHS have issued guidance around what to do regarding appointments:

  • Get medical help if you need it
  • Do not change any appointments or procedures unless advised by your doctor
  • Go to the hospital if you’re advised to
  • Call your GP surgery, or visit their website instead of going to the surgery in person

Hugh Adams, Brain Tumour Research’s Head of Stakeholder Relations, acknowledges it can be tempting to ignore our symptoms, particularly when trying to help the NHS. However, as he explains in the context of brain cancers such as meningioma, “While 80-90% of tumours are benign, they can still be problematic, so anyone worried about symptoms should continue to attend appointments or seek advice.

Travis also explains that a new solution from the NHS could help those unable to go for screenings and smear tests in person:

When it comes to cervical cancer, home trials of HPV swab testing will be vital, and this trial will see that 31,000 women who are overdue their smear tests by 15 months are sent one.”

“These new initial swab tests will help increase uptake of cervical screening for those women who face legitimate barriers”, Travis goes on to say. “Testing for high-risk HPV can be done in the comfort of your own home at any time of day and is therefore much more accessible to many. If this test is positive, it can be followed up by an invitation for the full smear screening test by the GP surgery.”

However, Travis concludes: “It’s key to remember this is merely the first step in identifying risk of cervical cancer, but is nonetheless vital as, if caught early on, it could mean the difference of life and possibly death for some women.”