Differences in the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the long-term trajectories of life satisfaction by sex in the UK: a prospective cohort study

Lancet. 2023 Nov:402 Suppl 1:S71. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(23)02138-4.


Background: The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women's mental health, with most evidence focused on mental ill-health outcomes. Previous research suggests that differences in time-use might explain this disparity, as women generally spent more time doing psychologically taxing activities than men. We investigated (1) sex differences in the impact of the pandemic in the long-term trajectories of life satisfaction and (2) whether time-use differences partly explained that differential impact.

Methods: In this prospective cohort study, we used the 1970 British Cohort Study, a birth cohort representing people born in Great Britain in 1970. Since 1970, information has been collected for all cohort members every 4-10 years (ten sweeps). Additional data were collected at three timepoints during the pandemic (May 2020, September-October 2020, February-March 2021) as part of the COVID-19 Survey. Response rates within the target population ranged between 23·6% (May, 2020) and 32·5% (March, 2021) in the COVID-19 Survey. We used non-response weights to restore sample representativeness to the target population (cohort members alive and residing in the UK during the pandemic). Life satisfaction was prospectively assessed at ages 26 (1996), 30, 34, 42, 46, 50, 50·5, and 51 years (2021) using a single question with responses ranging from 0 (lowest life satisfaction) to 10 (highest life satisfaction). We used multiple-group piecewise latent growth curve models grouped by sex assigned at birth. Additional models were adjusted for self-reported number of hours spent working, volunteering, home-schooling children, taking care of children and other people, and doing housework during the pandemic. Participants provided verbal informed consent. Ethics approval was not sought as non-sensitive, open-access data with minimal risk of identification was used.

Findings: We analysed data from 6766 adults (3799 [56·2%] women and 2967 [43·8%] men). Compared with men, women had consistently higher levels of life satisfaction before the pandemic (Δintercept,unadjusted = 0·213, 95% CI 0·087 to 0·340, p=0·0009), and experienced a more accelerated decline with its onset (Δquad2,unadjusted = -0·018, -0·026 to -0·011; p<0·0001), even after accounting for time use (Δquad2,adjusted = -0·016, -0·031 to -0·001; p=0·0348). Results were robust to adjustment for concurrent financial and occupational situation (Δquad2,adjustedfull = -0·019, -0·035 to -0·004; p=0·0158).

Interpretation: Our study shows sex inequalities in the impact of the pandemic on the long-term life satisfaction trajectories of adults in their 50s. Self-reported time-use differences did not account for these inequalities. One of the limitations is that we relied on self-reported time-use and were not able to include factors like the so-called mental load (being responsible for organising or monitoring activities, regardless of being involved in their execution), which might partly explain these results.

Funding: Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Centre for Society and Mental Health at King's College London.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • COVID-19* / epidemiology
  • Child
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Pandemics
  • Personal Satisfaction
  • Prospective Studies