Depletion and Subjective Well-Being: Lessons from the UK Coronavirus Lockdown

By Alex Nunn and Marc Cowling - 22 June 2020
Depletion and Subjective Well-Being: Lessons from the UK Coronavirus Lockdown

Alex Nunn and Marc Cowling explore the effects of lockdown on Subjective Well-Being in the UK and draw policy lessons applicable to many countries.

Many countries around the world instigated a lockdown in the midst of the spread of the Novel Coronavirus Covid 19 during March and April 2020.  We know a great deal about the unequal health effects of the virus, but it is important also to understand how the measures to tackle the virus may themselves have had unequal and/or unintended consequences. Learning the lessons of lockdown is essential so that policies can attenuate negative effects in the event that further general or targeted lockdowns are necessary or in the context of future pandemics.

Our recent research has explored different impacts of lockdown on Subjective Well-Being in the UK.  Given important commonalities in experiences and policy responses in the pandemic, the lessons that emerge from this are likely to be relevant to many countries.  The analysis is based on the recent first release of monthly data produced from a large-scale nationally representative survey: Understanding Society.

Policies to contain and mitigate the Pandemic

The UK has been particularly hard hit by the Coronavirus pandemic.  Recorded deaths with a firm connection to the virus had exceeded 45,000 by the end of May and when wider deaths are taken into account, the toll is much higher still.  The economic effects of lockdown are expected to be equally sizeable, with the OECD projecting that it will be one of the worst effected economies. 

In an attempt to stem the spread of the virus the Government initiated an evolving lockdown process from 16th March which involved the closure of schools, bars and restaurants and the public being ordered to ‘stay at home’ in order to protect health care capacity and ‘save lives’.

Like many other countries, the government also used measures to support the economy – including a ‘furlough’ scheme which has been extensively taken up by employers; with more than 8.7m jobs furloughed at an expected total cost of around £60bn.   

Subjective Well-Being in the Lockdown?

During April – at the height of the lockdown – the Understanding Society population were surveyed on the financial, well-being, time use and educational impacts of the lockdown.  We explored changes in self-reported Subjective Well-Being in the this representative (once weighted) survey data.  The findings add to other research which has found that the economic impacts have been felt most by low paid families and lone parents  and that women have been most negatively affected by redundancies and school closures.  Research also shows that women - and in particular BAME women – have been negatively affected in terms of anxiety and that younger people and women are most negatively affected in terms of their mental health.

The key findings in our analysis are:

  • Women report that their Subjective Well-Being has been more negatively affected than men. 
  • Time spent doing housework, childcare and home schooling and additional caring work all predicted negative change in Subjective Well-Being.  While there is some evidence that men are doing more of this work, women spent far more time – 50% more - on house work and childcare.
  • Age – there is a clear and negative relationship between a persons’ age and their well-being which suggests that some concerns regarding the effect of lockdown on older people may be somewhat unfounded in general; though that doesn’t mean that specific groups may not be negatively affected.
  • The Subjective Well-Being of furloughed workers has fared significantly better than that of all other workers which suggests that the CJRS scheme has been doubly effective (economically and emotionally) in protecting those workers eligible.
  • Key workers also report better Subjective Well-Being effects than others which suggests that they have benefited from being able to continue working.


That women are most affected by the crisis will not come as a surprise to many feminist political economists who frequently note that households – and women – act as ‘shock-absorbers’ in a crisis; picking up extra work and caring for others.  Shirin Rai coined the term ‘depletion’ to capture the way that everyday domestic work – particularly in a crisis – affect women’s coping capacity, causing  “ a specific kind of harm: it accrues at the level at which the resource outflows exceed resource inflows in carrying out social reproductive work over a threshold of sustainability”.  Certainly it appears as if the lockdown in the UK has been depleting of women’s Subjective Well-Being.

Policy Lessons?

The findings are related to the UK context but given that the pandemic has affected most countries of the world and many have implemented lockdown measures, often much more severe than those in the UK.  Many have also introduced job protection schemes.  Gender inequality in access to resources, the labour market, and domestic work are also common. This means the findings are likely to be relevant in many other countries.

As lockdown’s are eased, governments around the world should pay just as much attention to ‘build back better’ in relation to the gendered ‘depletion’ effects as the economic effects of the pandemic. The crisis – and increased male childcare – may be an opportunity to ‘build back better’.

At the same time, while Furloughed and Key Workers have been protected up until now – these groups are low paid and vulnerable as the crisis abates.  Job retention schemes may simply delay redundancies and constrained government budgets must not lead to key workers in health and caring professions paying the long-term price for the crisis.

Policies to restore depletion and to mitigate longer-term effects on Furloughed and Key Workers are not just ethically desirable – they are likely to enhance resilience in the face of future crises.




Prof. Alex Nunn is Director of the Social, Cultural and Legal Research Centre and Prof. Marc Cowling is Head of Research in the College of Business, Law and Social Sciences, both at the University of Derby. The research outlined in this blog has been submitted for review to Global Policy.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

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