Essential women workers more likely to be at ‘high risk’ of catching Covid during pandemic - report

Women, who featured prominently in healthcare, more likely to have suffered from anxiety, research finds

Essential women workers during the pandemic were substantially more likely to have been at high risk of getting Covid-19 than their male counterparts, new research published by UCD in partnership with the Nevin Economic Research Institute has suggested.

In their report, entitled Essential Workers’ Experience of Work During the Covid-19 Pandemic in Ireland, Maria Belizon, John Geary and Paul MacFlynn, find that 45 per cent of women in roles that were exempted from pandemic restrictions between March 2020 and May 2021 across a range of sectors including healthcare, public administration and transport found themselves in positions where they believed they were at high risk of getting the virus in their workplace compared to 28 per cent of men.

The authors also found that women were marginally more likely to have raised concerns with their employers about the risk of getting Covid and were less likely to believe those concerns had been fully addressed.

Lower-paid workers and those in the 25-34 age bracket were the other categories most likely to have been exposed to higher risks while mitigation measures “were much better implemented for high-earner essential workers”.


The research is based on 953 workers of a wider sample of 2,076 who were required to leave home to attend workplaces during the 14-month period in question. Regarding all of those workers as essential on the basis that they were exempt from restrictions that prevented many others from working, or obliged them to do their work at home, confers “essential” status on a higher percentage – 46 per cent – than tends to be the case in other research. But, the authors suggest the scale of the survey provides a “unique insight” into the experiences of those who worked in the likes of care settings, retail environments or emergency services over the course of the pandemic’s most intense period.

The report suggests that women workers, who were particularly prominent in hospitals, care homes and other healthcare settings, where more than half (56 per cent) of workers believed they were exposed to high levels of risk, were more likely to suffer from stress related to their work than men.

Men, meanwhile, were three-times as likely as women to have worked long hours during the pandemic with public administration and defence, which includes gardaí and firefighters, agriculture and construction returning some of the highest percentages. Family caring responsibilities are likely to have been an important factor in this, but more women felt they needed to work at very high levels of intensity when they were at work, the report suggests.

Out of about 60 per cent of workers who voiced concerns about catching Covid in the workplace, just more than half felt those concerns were fully addressed while 14 per cent believed issues were not addressed at all.

“I think the great paradox here is that the challenges faced by many of those who were obliged to work from home have received a great deal of attention since the pandemic ended and some are now being addressed by legislation in relation to issues like the right to disconnect,” said one of the report’s authors, Prof John Geary.

“That has not been the case in relation to the essential workers who kept on having to go out to work. In a sense they are the forgotten orphan of the pandemic. I think that’s in large part because we haven’t had a review, or a public inquiry, as they are having in the UK at the moment, which looks at how we managed our response to Covid.”

Prof Geary said the findings suggested good workplace relations tended to have a positive impact on the perception of how Covid was handled by workers, as did the presence of a union.

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is Work Correspondent at The Irish Times