This post was co-authored by Jena Doom, Ph.D., and Greta Hoffman, BA
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased rates of anxiety and depression around the world. In the first nine months of the pandemic, rates of depression and anxiety among Americans were six times higher than they were in 2019 (Coley & Baum, 2021). From the start, healthcare workers (eg, doctors, nurses, community health workers) have been on the front lines of this pandemic, bearing physical and psychological burdens. Many studies have reported that healthcare workers are at higher risk for burnout, mental exhaustion, insomnia, anxiety, depression, and PTSD symptoms (e.g., Talevi et al., 2020 ).
Healthcare workers who work directly with COVID-19 patients not only have a greater risk of exposure to the virus, but are also more likely to experience psychological distress due to witnessing repeated deaths and patients with serious illnesses. They must comfort patients when their families are not allowed to visit them. Additionally, some healthcare workers have chosen to leave their homes to protect their families, removing them from their own support system. These negative experiences often impact men and women differently.
Female healthcare worker in distress
Source: Cedric Fauntleroy/Pexels
Women make up nearly 70% of the health care sector, and research shows that health care workers who are women are at greater risk of mental health issues during the COVID-19 pandemic than men (Wenham et al. al., 2021; López-Atanes et al., 2021). A study looking at the mental health of Italian healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic found that women had greater symptoms of depression and PTSD than men (Di Tella et al., 2020). A similar study in Spain found that female healthcare workers were at higher risk of psychological distress than their male counterparts (López-Atanes et al., 2021). In Wuhan, China, researchers found that female healthcare workers were more anxious than their male counterparts (Liu et al., 2021).
Specific challenges for female health workers
Many factors may contribute to the higher rates of mental health problems among female health care workers. Female healthcare workers have more difficulty accessing personal protective equipment (PPE), and the PPE available is tailored to the male body. This ill-fitting equipment may also increase the risk of exposure to COVID-19 among female healthcare workers (Hoernke et al., 2021).
Additionally, pregnant or breastfeeding healthcare workers are, in many cases, not receiving the additional PPE and resources they need in a hospital during a pandemic. For example, some pregnant healthcare workers have had to continue to see patients directly despite the increased risk of complications from COVID-19, and many nursing rooms have not been cleaned regularly or properly during the pandemic ( Wenham et al., 2021).
Psychiatric history is a risk factor for experiencing greater psychological distress due to the pandemic, which is concerning for women given high rates of basic mental health conditions. One of the reasons that a history of mental illness may be a risk factor is that healthcare workers may not receive adequate mental health support, even after experiencing mental health issues in the past. .
A study in Brazil highlighted how racial inequality contributed to greater psychological distress among female healthcare workers. In this study, black women reported having less access to PPE and training, as well as experiencing more workplace harassment compared to white women (Wenham et al., 2021). Additionally, racist and xenophobic violence against Asian Americans has increased during the pandemic, creating a greater threat to the safety of Asian American women who were healthcare workers (Gover, 2020). Women are also more likely to experience the economic impacts of COVID-19 (Wenham et al., 2020).
At the start of the pandemic, during stay-at-home orders, gender-based violence escalated (Dlamini, 2021). Calls to domestic violence hotlines increased by 27% in Brazil in 2020 (Bastos et al., 2020). These poor home environments can contribute to mental health issues among female health care workers.
The gender pay gap in health care can also threaten mental health. When women are paid less than their male counterparts, they are much more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety (Platt et al., 2016). Female healthcare workers are also more likely to experience negative side effects due to more irregular work schedules compared to their male counterparts, which can lead to higher levels of burnout and more mental stress. physical and professional.
Women are also underrepresented in leadership positions in national and global healthcare organizations, despite making up the majority of the healthcare industry. This lack of representation may lead leaders to ignore how the pandemic affects men and women differently in public health policy decision-making (Leung et al., 2020).
Potential policy and public health solutions
Policy makers and public health officials would benefit from viewing the COVID-19 pandemic through a gender lens to understand how the disease affects individuals differently. This gender lens could help reveal greater gender inequalities in order to identify the most effective policy and public health responses. With women making up the majority of the health care sector, it is important to focus research on their experiences in order to reduce the growing mental health problems among female health care workers. By first recognizing that women are more likely to experience psychological distress from the COVID-19 pandemic than men, additional mental health resources and other targeted interventions can be provided to these healthcare workers. .
There is no simple solution to address gender inequalities in health care. However, we can take some steps to improve the experience and mental health of female healthcare workers during the pandemic:
- Have regular training on gender sensitivity and biases focused on the health care environment.
- Provide sufficient mental health resources accessible to all health care workers, with specific resources for women.
- Provide resources for victims and survivors of domestic violence.
- Provide female-friendly PPE and provide additional support for pregnant and breastfeeding healthcare workers.
- Reduce the gender pay gap in health care by increasing pay transparency and implementing equitable scheduling practices.
- Increase women’s leadership in the healthcare and public health communities.