How women became the pandemic’s ‘precarious worriers’

'The burden of concern sits with women more than men' - JGI/Tom Grill/ Getty Images Contributor
‘The burden of concern sits with women more than men’ – JGI/Tom Grill/ Getty Images Contributor

“Don’t touch that!” I yell at my four-year-old daughter for what feels like the thousandth time that day. “Did you just put your fingers in your mouth? Can you come here and use some hand sanitiser? No, don’t lick that!”

My anxiety levels on even the most mundane outings have skyrocketed during the pandemic. And I don’t even have to be on the outing in question for something approaching hysteria to ensue. “Did you get within two metres of each other?” I’ll routinely ask my husband after his weekly tennis matches. “Did anyone breathe in your general direction while you were buying your coffee?”

I am far from alone in having been driven to the brink of insanity by the coronavirus crisis. New research by Kantar that divides us into six different “tribes”, based on how we have responded to Covid and lockdown, suggests that women are far more likely than men to fall into a the category labelled “precarious worriers”. Such people are more inclined to worry about falling sick; are relatively scared about the situation; check on deaths and infections daily; and constantly seek out information about best practices. (If you remember the exact death tolls from last weekend, and washed your hands so much throughout March and April that your skin was bleeding and raw, you may well fit into this box.)

As well as feeling anxious about their family’s health, these so-called precarious worriers are also more likely than others to be finding this a tough time, with worries about their children, home-schooling and finances high on their list, finds the research. 

That women appear to be experiencing much higher levels of anxiety around their finances compared to men is no doubt linked to the fact that 37 per cent of women have already seen, or expect to see, a negative impact on household income due to the virus, compared to 25 per cent of men.

'Women have tended to be more at the frontline of the pandemic, working as nurses and care home staff' - Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
‘Women have tended to be more at the frontline of the pandemic, working as nurses and care home staff’ – Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

The findings, drawn from a study spanning 100,000 people across 50 markets, underscore the disproportionate impact the crisis is having on women, as highlighted by the Telegraph’s Equality Check series. As pointed out in these pages, the Resolution Foundation think tank has already shown that women are more likely than men to be working in sectors that have had to shut down during the pandemic, while mothers are almost 50 per cent more likely than fathers to have either lost their job or quit, according to research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Little wonder, then, that according to Kantar, a large majority (64 per cent) of “precarious worriers” are women. Conversely, women are vastly underrepresented in the tribe described as “ostriches”, making up only 33 per cent of a group that does not take the situation seriously nor see what all the fuss is about.

“The burden of concern sits with women more than men,” says Amy Cashman, co-chief executive of Kantar’s Insights Division, who points to additional reasons. “It makes sense because women have tended to be more at the frontline of the pandemic, working as nurses and care home staff for instance, and more likely to have part time jobs that can be done at home, so are out and about more. We’ve seen they have taken on more of the burden of housework and childcare.”

The researchers have meanwhile noticed the continuation of a longer-term trend: that women are less likely than men to take a proactive approach to their finances, for example by conducting a financial health check or moving their investment portfolio around. When it comes to taking action to look at their finances, men are more likely to do so than women (49 per cent of men say they have, compared to 36 per cent of women).

On the other hand, when it comes to purchasing groceries and household goods – behaviour that affects the here and now – women are more likely than men to actively seek out better deals. 

“You get this sense of women trying to shop around and change their normal shopping behaviour to meet their budget and restrictions. But we already know women are not as well protected from a long-term financial planning perspective and there’s a real risk this situation will exacerbate that,” says Cashman, who has spoken previously about the need to close the gender investment gap, and to encourage women to take more interest in, and control over, their long-term financial planning. 

o which Covid-19 tribe do you belong?
o which Covid-19 tribe do you belong?

As for the financial impact of the current crisis on women, she believes it will “definitely” play out over an extended period. This means that for many women, there will be no quick return to financial health – even once lockdown is behind us.

Nor does Cashman expect female anxiety levels to drop drastically any time soon. “The pandemic has not gone away,” she points out.

Uncertainty remains around whether all school-aged children will return to full-time education in September, and whether childcare provision will return to its pre-pandemic availability any time soon, she adds. With women shouldering more of the home-schooling and childcare burden, their worries around what the near-future holds look likely to remain in place.

But the tidings aren’t uniformly bleak. Kantar’s research also found that many people have started to like their lockdown habits, with more than half of those surveyed planning to maintain some of them post-pandemic. Increased hygiene, healthier eating, spending time with the family and personal development were the four that topped the list, while more than half the world (51%) now claims to be trying to exercise more as well.

As lockdown restrictions are lifted, the challenge will be reconciling these positive goals with our newly precarious lives.