New research from Aarhus University and the University of Copenhagen shows that the well-being of the population mirrors the intensity of the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying societal restrictions. The results also show that men’s well-being declined the most during the second wave whereas women’s declined the most during the first wave.
Quarantine, social distancing and major lockdowns have gradually become commonplace in most countries to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and evidence suggests that these measures affect our mental health. Researchers in Denmark carried out a three-wave panel survey to assess the population’s well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic. The results show that the intensity of the pandemic is clearly linked to well-being, and this declined for both men and women during the first wave and the accompanying lockdown in spring 2020.
“The results show that the well-being of Denmark’s population varies in accordance with the trajectory of transmission and the accompanying societal restrictions. Women were hardest hit during the first wave, whereas men’s well-being declined most during the second wave,” explains Søren Dinesen Østergaard, Professor, Department of Clinical Medicine, Aarhus University and Department of Affective Disorders, Aarhus University Hospital – Psychiatry.
The WHO-5 scale
The researchers measured well-being using the WHO five-item well-being scale (WHO-5), which general practitioners and other doctors use to screen for depression. WHO-5 gives an overall score between 0 and 100, with higher scores indicating better well-being.
In 2020, the researchers conducted three panel surveys using the WHO-5: the first from 31 March to 6 April; the second from 22 April to 30 April, when infection rates fell; and the third from 20 November to 8 December. Søren Dinesen Østergaard says that well-being increased from the first panel survey to the second, which did not surprise him: “As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and COVID-19-related deaths decreased, society gradually opened up again. I think our results reflect that people breathed a sigh of relief because Denmark escaped relatively unscathed during the first wave.”
However, the average WHO-5 scores declined from the second to the third round by almost 4 points for men and 2.5 points for women. Ignoring the gender difference, the average well-being was the same during the first and second waves.
Personal finances and social networks
In a future study, the researchers will examine what drives the gender difference in well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Søren Dinesen Østergaard has a theory: “Men’s greater decline in well-being during the second wave may result from increasing financial and work-related worries, since more men than women are employed in the private sector, which faces hardship as the pandemic drags on. The fact that men are probably not as adept as women at seeking support and help in their social networks may also play a part,” he says.
Søren Dinesen Østergaard emphasizes that other factors than the pandemic may be important. “We cannot be sure that the pandemic is the only cause of the variation in the well-being of the population, but our results are definitely compatible with the pandemic having an impact. However, the coming of winter may also have played a role,” he says, adding that it is primarily women who experience seasonal variation in mood, which does not square with the fact that men’s well-being declined most during the second wave.
Light at the end of the tunnel
Three new nationwide panel surveys using WHO-5 are planned during 2021. Søren Dinesen Østergaard and his colleagues think that well-being will improve during the spring, when there is hopefully a reason to focus on the increasing number of people vaccinated rather than the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases.
“With the approach of spring and more people vaccinated, transmission will hopefully fall further. I think that well-being will improve again as societal restrictions are gradually lifted,” concludes Søren Dinesen Østergaard.