Women enduring higher rates of anxiety and depression during COVID-19 pandemic


 When Anna Samecki realized she was no longer enjoying time with her daughter, she knew something was wrong.

"I lost myself," she said.

"The stress this year has been something I've never experienced before.

The Sydney doctor said the impact of the pandemic — working from home, being isolated from family and friends and a growing feeling of fear and uncertainty due to COVID-19 — led to bone-deep exhaustion she struggled to manage.

"At my worst there were feelings I've never felt before, asking 'What is the point?', and I felt I wasn't working to my full capacity," Dr Samecki said.

Brisbane data analyst and working mother Lisa Lu went through a similar struggle this year.

A woman wearing classes looking at the camera
Brisbane mother Lisa Lu says this year has been overwhelming.(ABC News: Anna HArtley)

"COVID-19 has definitely created a huge disruption to our normal lives — not only personally but also our working life," she said.

In 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially recognized burnout syndrome as an "occupational phenomenon" and experts fear it will spike as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Fears burnout will rise — and women will bear the brunt

Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins said the gendered impact of coronavirus was hard to ignore.

"Women tend to be employed in caring industries on the front line or industries like tourism or hospitality which were shut down, they continue to be primarily responsible for caring and domestic work and that's increased due to COVID," she said.

"In the longer term I am concerned families might allow women to drop out of the job market and that has a serious long-term effect, including a risk of homelessness in old age, and that reverts us back to gender norms that impact whole communities."

Resilience training providers Springfox surveyed more than 530 Australians working across sectors including banking, education, government, and health during the pandemic and found burnout-inducing stress and anxiety were increasing for workers, especially women.

"Our research also showed females did not fare anywhere near as well as males, they reported double the anxiety and stress and double the level of loneliness than males and that was stark," Springfox CEO Stuart Taylor said.


Relationships Australia CEO Elisabeth Shaw said the pandemic was also leading to a rise in "presenteeism" — when employees physically show up to work, but productivity levels and engagement are reduced. 

You've heard of burnout, but what about 'presenteeism'?

"Presenteeism already costs the Australian economy up to $34 billion per year and we have to expect this figure will increase," she said.

Elisabeth Shaw sits in an open-plan office.
Relationships Australia CEO Elisabeth Shaw says coronavirus has increased the rate of occupational burnout in Australia.(ABC News: Richard Hoskins)

"We've seen enormous need like we've never had before."

Prioritizing mental health

Ms Shaw said employers and workers needed to make mental health a priority.

"One of the things working parents find difficult is putting time aside for themselves, so it's important to find time to be alone, that self-care is critical."

For Dr Samecki, telling her family and friends she was struggling helped ease the burden.

A woman sits at her laptop looking contemplative
Dr Anna Samecki is used to being busy — the mother-of-one runs her own business and has multiple jobs.(Supplied)

"I had the most serious chat I have ever had in my life with my husband and said, 'Here is what you can do to help me', and that was good, he had no idea," she said.

'Like riding a bicycle on the edge of a cliff'

Dr Samecki also spoke to a psychologist for the first time.

Prioritizing exercise and socialising were keys to coping for Ms Lu.

"I found reaching out to neighbors and alternating home-schooling days and speaking with friends and family helped maintain my mental health," she said.

"I also made sure I joined in regular exercise which is so important.

"For me, physical exercise helped break the pattern of feeling overwhelmed and the negative spiral."

A woman lifting a dumbbell in a gym
Lisa Lu says exercising has helped her mental health.(ABC News: Anna Hartley)