Women on frontline feeling pressures at work and home, says UNISON     

Christina McAnea says government needs to step up with funding and support to make their working lives easier

Women in key worker positions 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 (Wednesday) by UNISON.

The findings are based on responses from nearly 47,000 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 country running.

The report Women Working Through the Pandemic includes the experiences of those providing a wide range of essential services in the UK including education, health, social care and policing, either in their usual workplace (57%) or from home (32%).

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 (65%) not sleeping well, more than half (51%) not taking regular breaks and a significant number (57%) 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, more than three in five (61%) are worried about the mental health of their children and more than two fifths (45%) 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 (50%) do not have time to reflect and destress, especially those with children or looking after loved ones at home (62%).

More than a third (37%) say they are experiencing loneliness and the percentage rose (57%) among those living on their own. Feelings of being cut off from other people are greatest among women working from home – 63% said they felt isolated from colleagues compared with 46% overall.

Women who can least afford it are paying the biggest price, according to UNISON. Nearly 25,000 who took part in the survey – almost half (47%) – earn £18,000 a year or less, and a third (34%) have an annual salary of £15,000 or less.

More than two fifths (45%) 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 (31%) say they had to dip into savings to cope with financial difficulties. One even revealed they had bought a caravan to live in to protect their vulnerable family members from catching Covid.

More than half (52%) said being unable to get a regular hair cut or colour is affecting how they feel about themselves. A similar proportion (51%) are not taking regular breaks at work and two in five (46%) 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 general secretary Christina McAnea 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.”

Notes to editors: 
-UNISON carried out the survey from 8-10 February 2021. The findings are based on 46,894 responses from women key workers. They worked in schools (29%); the NHS/healthcare (29%); social care (11%), local government (14%); police, justice and probation (3%); higher and further education (6%); charities, voluntary organisations or housing associations (2%), and other settings including transport and energy (6%).
-Click here to read the full report.
-Case studies include (names have been changed):
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 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.”
– Women Working Through the Pandemic is released to coincide with the opening day of Empowering Women. This virtual event replaces the annual women’s conference, which usually takes place in February. Speakers include Christina McAnea and deputy leader of the Labour Party Angela Rayner MP.
-UNISON is the UK’s largest union, with more than 1.3 million members providing public services in education, local government, the NHS, police service and energy. They are employed in the public, voluntary and private sectors.

Media contacts: 
Anthony Barnes M: 07834 864794 E: a.barnes@unison.co.uk
Liz Chinchen M: 07778 158175 E: l.chinchen@unison.co.uk