The lockdown triggered a sharp increase in anxiety-related sleeping problems, with mothers, key workers and people from minority ethnic backgrounds the worst affected, a study shows.
The number of Britons suffering sleep loss caused by worrying rose from one in six to one in four as a direct result of the huge disruption to people’s social and working lives after the restrictions began on 23 March.
Social isolation, loss of employment, financial problems, illness, fear of getting infected with coronavirus and the pressures of juggling work and home-schooling all contributed to the trend.
Prof Jane Falkingham, from the Economic and Social Research Council-funded Centre for Population Change at Southampton University, which undertook the research, said: “Sleep loss affected more people during the first four weeks of the Covid-19 related lockdown than it did before. We observed a large increase in the number of Britons, both men and women, suffering anxiety-induced sleep problems.
“This reflects stress levels due to anxieties about health, financial consequences, changes in social life and the daily routine, all of which may affect sleep.”
She and her colleagues looked at how many people aged 16 and above from a 15,360-strong sample of the population had trouble sleeping both before the pandemic struck in March and then in April.
The overall incidence of worry-related sleep loss rose from 15.7% to 24.7%. But that 9% increase nationally masked much bigger spikes in certain groups, particularly mothers of young children. For example, while the number of men experiencing poor sleep rose from 11.9% to 16.5%, the increase among women was much more pronounced – it shot up from 18.9% to 31.8%.
Sleeplessness doubled from 19.5% to 40% among mothers of children aged 0 to 4 and rose almost as dramatically – from 21.7% to 38% – for those with children aged 5 to 18.
Falkingham and her team said the bigger jump in insomnia among women was linked to mothers taking on much more of the burden of home-schooling their children than men since March, especially among those who were also working from home and juggling both roles.
“The Covid-19 pandemic and policy responses to it, including home working and schooling, have widened the disparities of sleep deprivation across gender, putting women and mothers at an even greater disadvantage,” said Falkingham.
Those with younger children provided most of the childcare while many older women found themselves juggling their jobs with caring for elderly parents and grandchildren.
Insomnia is one of Britain’s biggest health problems. It affects millions of people in normal times and is often caused by stress, anxiety or depression. It is often linked to, or can exacerbate, an underlying mental or physical health problem.
In June the Institute for Fiscal Studies published research that found women, especially for those aged 16-34, had experienced a deterioration in their mental health during the pandemic much more than men.
Sleep problems among frontline workers in health, social care, education and childcare – in all of which women are over-represented – rose from 16.4% to 28.9% after the lockdown. “We can speculate that they [key workers] likely have higher work stress and disproportionately higher rates of Coronavirus infection”, said Falkingham.
Sleeplessness among people of black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds also rose sharply, from 20.7% to 32% – a jump of 11.3%.
Falkingham said: “We think the increase in sleep loss in the BAME community reflects disproportionately higher rates of coronavirus infection among BAME individuals, leading to potentially higher anxiety associated with coronavirus-specific circumstances, as well as a higher risk of having financial difficulties, feeling lonely, being a key worker and having dependent children.”