Findings from the Families in Australia Survey: Life during Covid-19

A Families in Focus webinar

Content type
Event date

2 July 2020, 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm (AEST)


Kelly Hand




About this webinar

This webinar was held on Thursday 2 July 2020.

In this webinar, AIFS Deputy Director Kelly Hand presented key early findings from AIFS’ first Families in Australia Survey, Life during COVID-19.

How have families' lives changed since the pandemic? These times have thrown us either closer than ever to our families, or isolated us from them. They have confined us to home, redrawn boundaries between work and family life, and heightened differences between haves and have-nots.

To explore some of the many ways that COVID-19 has changed family life in Australia, Kelly will present initial findings from AIFS’ Life during COVID-19 survey, covering such topics as changes to workforce participation, work patterns, child care, household forms and family supports.

Audio transcript (edited)

MS HOLLONDS: Hello everybody. Welcome to our sixth and final webinar in the Families in Focus series this month or the month of June/July. I'd like to start by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which I'm speaking to you today which is the Gadigal people of the Eora nation and pay my respect to their Elders past and present and to the Elders of all the lands on which you're joining us today across Australia and potentially elsewhere in the world.

My name's Anne Hollonds. I'm the director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies. This month I hope that you've been able to join us and thank you for those who have been on this journey with us right up until this final sixth webinar. We've had some fabulous presentations and some really interesting discussions about important issues and if you've missed any of those you'll find them on our website, the recordings will be up there.

So today we have with us our Deputy Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, the Deputy Director of Research, Kelly Hand and she's going to be presenting the first report on the Families in Australia Survey, Life During COVID-19 and essentially this webinar is the launch of that report and we're really delighted to be able to be sharing these early findings with you today.

Let me tell you a little bit about Kelly. She's responsible for all the Institute's research and knowledge translation programs. The work of the Australian Institute of Family Studies seeks to increase understanding about the factors that help Australian families thrive or that are barriers to their wellbeing. Kelly has worked in the area of family and policy research for over 20 years, beginning her career at the Brotherhood of St Laurence and then joining the Institute in January 2001. She's a sociologist by training and her research has focused on the impacts of policies and service systems on families. A particular area of expertise is her ability to work collaboratively with policy makers and other stakeholders to develop research and evaluation projects creating impact through their rigour and relevance for policy decision making.

Now as Kelly goes through her presentation I'd encourage you to start posting your questions on the GoToWebinar platform and try to keep your questions succinct because they're easier for us to manage but don't wait. We can start posting them straight away and you'll also find this report that Kelly's referring to in her presentation in the handout section of GoToWebinar.

So please join me in welcoming now Kelly Hand. Over to you, Kelly.

MS HAND: Thanks Anne and a very exciting day for AIFS to be presenting this research which we've been working on for the last few months. I'd like to also acknowledge the traditional owners and acknowledge the traditional owners of the land I'm sitting on today which is the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation but to also acknowledge the other communities where you are – traditional owners of the other communities where everyone is joining me today.

I'd also like to acknowledge some of the researchers involved in this research because whilst I am speaking about it today I am one of many. Particularly Jenny Baxter, Michela Wadzinski and Megan Carroll who have worked tirelessly to get this first early findings piece of work out and also to Michael Day and to Tracey Young and Lisa Carroll who have also, from our comms team, worked so hard on this. It's been a really whole of Institute effort and we're very lucky to have such great colleagues.

So I'm going to start with a little bit of information about the survey for those of you who kind of like those sorts of things and then we'll move on to some of the findings from the research and hopefully we'll have some time for some great questions and answers.

So the survey is the first survey in a series of AIFS flagship surveys for families in Australia. This one, of course, is focusing on families' experiences of COVID-19. So the survey ran from 1 May to 9 June and we focused on how families were adjusting to the pandemic, the restrictions and the different sort of programs that have been put into place with the different governments. Experiences of the social and economic impacts of the pandemic which we know are significant for families and supported each when they lived together or depart and the impacts on their relationships and how they might have protected their physical and mental health. And today we're going to focus on particularly areas around working and family and caring for children and housework and some of the activities that people did together.

So just a little bit about the survey. We invited anyone aged 18 years or over residing in Australia during the survey period to take part and we got a terrific response using word of mouth, our network, social media, the media. So it's a convenient sample but a very large one. We got over 7,000 people participating in the survey, 7,300. Compared to the general population the survey over represents women, middle aged people, tertiary educated people, couples and every state and territory was represented. We had more from Victoria, ACT and Tasmania as a proportion of population but we had a good regional representation across the board. Forty per cent of our respondents lived in regional Australia, three per cent in remote or very remote communities and 57 per cent resided in major cities.

So in some ways the kind of level of interest, the 7,000-odd people that participated in the survey is not surprising given the pandemic triggered unprecedented sets of experiences and restrictions on Australians that we've never experienced before including closing of borders, staying at home, not being able to go to non-essential services and this slide shows the timeline of events relating to the pandemic in the lead up and the delivery of the survey.

I guess it's worth noting that for a long proportion of our survey, a period most Australians were living under quite significant restrictions around their ability to be outside of their homes, to gather together with people outside of their households, to do the kind of normal everyday things that Australians do as part of their lives.

So what did we find? I'm going to start with some of the headlines and then we can delve into some of the detail. So you can see first up that the proportion of people always working from home goes from seven per cent before COVID‑19 to 60 per cent during it which is a significant increase and we were surprised that it was quite a small amount before then.

Before COVID-19 30 per cent of families used parent care only. That is they didn't use any other form of childcare but that more than doubled and rose to 64 per cent of families during COVID-19. With so many people working at home, while parents were working 40 per cent were often actively or always actively caring for their children while at work and a further almost 30 per cent passively caring for their children. So they're working in really very different contexts for many parents at this time.

There was quite a lot of impacts on people's employment and income. So almost half of respondent's reported that they or their partner had lost employment, reduced hours or wages as a result of the pandemic although over 65 per cent reported no real change to their personal income. So for the respondents about 35 per cent had their own income. We don't know about whether their partner's income went down.

Young adults were almost four times, that's 15 per cent versus four per cent, more likely to be asking for help from government or NGOs and that reflects the large proportion of those young people who had their own work impacted.

So let's get into some of the detail starting from how we worked when we worked from home. So as we said, the biggest change in work was people moving from seven per cent of people working from home almost all the time to 60 per cent of people working from home all the time during the pandemic and for people who were families with children under 18 years the parents stayed employed because some parents, of course, were not employed during this time. It was reported that 60 per cent of mothers and 41 per cent of fathers always worked from home at this time and at the same time we know that most school aged children were learning from home. So it was a really significant impact on parents to be juggling both school learning and their own employment.

So when we worked from home 40 per cent of parents actively cared for their children while they were also doing their work. There remained 28 per cent reported always or often passively caring for their children. Only 21 per cent reported sometimes actively or passively caring for their children and 11 per cent said someone else looked after their children while they were working. So really only about ten per cent of families had an arrangement where someone else was caring for their children while they were working.

And this is reflected in the very rich qualitative data we collected as part of the survey. As this mother said, you know, it was a huge burden. Schooling two children and doing the work and we heard lots of stories from parents about how they did that juggle. How they shared the load. How they worked around their children's needs. Often working very early in the morning and very late at night in order to accommodate all of the things they had to do in each day.

We also looked at childcare arrangements. As we know on 6 April the childcare relief package came into effect and provided free childcare to families, priorities for essential workers and vulnerable children. Despite this the survey recorded a steep drop in the use of childcare and all other forms of non-parental care.

So a bit hard in terms of the use of approved childcare, through long day care, family day care, school aged care. Thirty two per cent of families used grandparent or informal care prior to the COVID pandemic but this went down to nine per cent during the pandemic. Eight per cent used nannies but that drop off less to five per cent, so a smaller drop off. Hardly anyone started using approved care who hadn't been during the COVID crisis and the same for any other forms of non-parental care.

And as I flagged grandparent care was something significantly affected by the pandemic and we spoke to grandparents or heard from grandparents through the survey as well. While nearly three out of 10 of the grandparents that participated in our survey had cared for the grandchildren at least weekly prior to the pandemic, almost no one continued to do that during that time.

Again seeing this through the lens of our qualitative data this had significant impact on grandparents and on their grandchildren and children as well. This grandmother talked about being on the border of New South Wales and Queensland and not being able to see her grandchild or even support her daughter and son-in-law and the need to support family members was something that, as well as missing their grandchildren, there was a lot of concern about the load on their own children in caring for the grandchildren and not being able to help them with that.

You would have possibly heard today there's been quite a bit of discussion about our research and the impacts of the gendered nature of care on families during this time. So prior to COVID-19 we saw that, you know, 54 per cent of mothers usually or always cared for their children typically. Equally between mothers and fathers that was 38 per cent. Usually always the father, eight per cent. It's barely shifted in terms of the COVID pandemic where only a shift of one or two per cent each way was experienced. So very interesting in the context of the changes to people's work arrangements that this didn't shift in terms of the gendered nature of care.

Similarly we saw very small shifts in housework where female partners were generally 43 per cent before COVID and only 41 per cent, down to 41 per cent female partners always or usually doing the housework during COVID. Shared equally it went up slightly but only by two per cent and male partners always or usually doing the housework pretty much stayed the same. As one of male participants said, 'I am cooking a little more but it's mostly the same', and that was the kind of commentary we got from men and women. That it was sort of a bit more help but not a substantive shift to change the dynamic.

In terms of the impacts of unemployment and the economic situation, so in our sample about 10 per cent of participants said they'd been stood down, made redundant or lost their jobs or business during COVID-19 although we had a larger group that had other impacts such as losing hours or being asked to take leave. For under 30s that was a lot greater. Much more significant impact. So twice as many under 30s had lost their job, been stood down or lost their business during COVID-19.

And again while 65 per cent of our participants reported no real change to their income during COVID-19 we did have 25 per cent say overall they had an increase, a small number decreased, 25 per cent decreased, a small number increased. For under 30s that was greater. So 30 per cent of under 30s both had a decrease and again, 15 per cent increase and probably this reflects the changes to employment availability but also reflects some of the policy mechanisms that were put into place at this time.

While young people were impacted significantly given just not – who may have decreased their wages, you know, as this young woman said, she's having to be very careful and she's worried about the longer term impacts of this, not just in the immediate term, about whether she'll even be able to own a home in the future and I think this reflects the concern of many people who participated in the survey when you read the qualitative response. That they were concerned not just about the immediate impacts but the longer term economic impacts of this on their lives and on their families.

People under 30 were also more affected by changes to work. They also were more affected by changes to living arrangements. So 21 per cent of people under 30 recorded moving back home and you'll see a similar spike of 21 per cent of 50 to 59 year olds having their households change which is probably their adult children moving back home with them too. So this young women said, 'My partner and I were living overseas at the start of the outbreak and we would normally live with other adults in a share house. However, we didn't have a residence so we had to move in with his family'.

We heard this a lot. We also heard about young people not being able to afford their rent and moving home. We also heard about the impact of young people moving home on the household finances of the parents which was often quite stressful and challenging as well.

In that line we can see that many people did rely on support during the pandemic. So overall people asked for help. Seven per cent of people asked for help from friends or family or from a government or a NGO but for under 30s this was much greater. So three times as likely to ask for help from friends and family, about 21 per cent and three times as likely to seek help from governments or NGOs.

We also asked people about what they missed in their lives during this time, particularly while the restrictions were going on and this is a lovely word map of some of the responses we got. We just asked people to tell us themselves. You can see that things like friends and families, having meals together, going on visits are the things that people missed the most. Possibly, you know, or certainly reflects my experience.

Looking at some of the groups, what people missed by their demographic. We found that, for example, couples with children who we were in their 40s missed sport most and the museum and library was the thing that most commonly single parents missed in their lives. Single people missed the gym when they were sort of in the 18 to 39 year old age bracket and older people living alone in the 40 to 59 year old age bracket missed travelling. So really diverse experiences but at that heart of it, I think, for many people was the missing of friends and families and spending time together.

So that's the end of the formal part of the presentation where we are talking about the findings but we are going to have some questions and answers now. So I'll see Anne again.

MS HOLLONDS: Thanks Kelly and wow, just hearing that all in one go again just really reminds me what we've all been through. We kind of know that it's been a massive disruption. So many elements to our lives have been turned upside down and it's so interesting to hear from people across Australia about how they're sort of dealing with it, what they've had to do to manage and how much the family unit has had to pivot and adapt in response to these external circumstances and it's not over yet. So we're really aware, especially this week with what's happening in Victoria, that there's an awfully long way to go with this.

So let me just start by asking you, Kelly, you know, what do you think we've sort out learned about the family in the midst of this? Like it's allowed us to go right into their homes in a very rare, quite a rare experience and I know you've got a lot of interesting qualitative data still to analyse and this is just the first report, of course but what's the sense that you're getting about the importance of this kind of survey, doing this kind of survey? Why is this important to do and what is it sort of telling us about the family?

MS HAND: Yeah sure. So I mean I think the first thing is the importance of families for many people and you know, acknowledging that families are not always safe places for people. Acknowledging that family in the traditional sense which is, you know, some of the families, I guess, in some ways we've talked about, about kind of households with parents and children together but in our research we talked about families much more broadly than that and the people that you identify in yours and the importance of those people in supporting you in these difficult times and the range of support.

So you know, families having to step in and educate their children themselves in ways that they've never had to before. Parents supporting their adult children financially either because they've come home or you know, paying their rent for them. Similarly young people also supporting their broader family. So they were the person that didn't lose work. They are the people who are paying the bills this time.

So people having to adjust, change the way that they live together. To change the way that they share resources is something that powerfully came through and I think if we put that family lens on that when we ask these questions we lose that. So we get a sense of how the population itself might be affected. We take away the context in which they're living through this particular time.

MS HOLLONDS: And it's interesting. You know, often we hear about the importance of the family. Especially at election time you hear a lot of public discussion about the families, the basic unit of society and it's so important.


MS HOLLONDS: But I think what this research is – it strikes me it's sort of telling us the narrative about what that means. What does it mean to be the basic unit of society? What does it actually mean – that family members do for each other when, you know, kind of the world around us just completely fragments and it's just us, right?

MS HAND: Right.

MS HOLLONDS: So it's that narrative that you don't often get to hear about which is really important, isn't it?

MS HAND: It is and we need to understand both how families support each other but where families may need more support to be able to help or when it's not appropriate for families to support each other. So this kind of research is looking at all of those aspects. We're not doing a sort of rose coloured glasses and I mean, you know, we've got all the comments about baking banana bread and how nice it was to go cycling at 4 o'clock in the afternoon with their kids because they weren't commuting. We've got all of those comments but we've got much more sort of, I guess, deeply saddening commentary on the state of some families relationships and lives and the isolation that some people are experiencing or the feeling of great stress that they're under and feeling quite isolated as a group around that too.

So all of those things are really important for us to understand from a policy perspective but also I think share with our community because, you know, AIFS is part of the community. We were all writing this survey in our spare bedrooms during lockdown. We were not able to leave our homes. We were juggling family life as well. So we want to share our findings with the people we know are going through that too.

MS HOLLANDS: That's right. So as you say, it's not about glorifying the idea of family but rather giving a realistic picture and that whether it's good or bad, whatever we're experiencing, you know, the family's very powerful and influential in terms of impacting our lives. I'm going to go to some of our questions now.

MS HAND: Sure.

MS HOLLONDS: So that we don't run out of time. There's one about the study, the methodology, if you like, itself and noting the lower numbers of men and noting lower levels of education.

MS HAND: M'hmm.

MS HOLLONDS: Of men, I think that's what that means and what are our plans to potentially augment the study with additional research or how are we going to deal with those proportions not being equal?

MS HAND: So I guess, yes, I mean it's one of our great challenges and anyone who has ideas for us about how we can fully engage men in family research going forward is something we'd love to hear about. We did have over a thousand men though which whilst as a proportion of the overall result is smaller, we'd love 50/50, a thousand men talking to us about families is something that we don't get very often. So still a large group that we can do some pretty robust analysis on and that's, I guess, the beauty of this research as well. It's not representative of population as a whole kind of survey but because we have over 7,000 results we can actually drill into those different groups, drill into the different demographic groups in quite a detailed way.

And in terms of extending it, I think, you know, we have a lot of qualitative data so we can really drill into men's experiences and we're keen to do that but in the longer term, as you and I have been talking about, you know, we've got lots of ideas about following the next wave of the survey that we're planning, to have some qualitative work and to have some more innovative ways of engaging with people who might want to do things differently and certainly tried to design the survey in such a way that it was more accessible language wise for people. So that, you know, people who perhaps have a lower level of education would feel more comfortable completing the survey and we did have feedback from people about that but again, getting people in and I suppose that's something we'll continue to work on.

MS HOLLONDS: Great. So more about demographics. Do you have any data on families with children who have a disability?

MS HAND: We probably can look into that but we do have questions about people having a long term health condition or a disability but we'd have to have a bit more of a look at the data.

MS HOLLONDS: That might be for a later report when we do more surveys.

MS HAND: For a later report, yeah.

MS HOLLONDS: Someone is interested to know whether we have more to say about families with young children aged up to five years of age and the impact for them and their children. Whether we have further insights for families in this group. Again, that might be for a later report, do you think?

MS HAND: Yeah. I mean some interesting findings which I'm thinking about now off the top of my head, so you know, I should say don't quote me fully but I think, you know, certainly families with younger children were feeling more of the intensity around trying to work and parent at the same time and we saw that in our qualitative data but also in our current data and interestingly we seem to see a bit more of the sharing between parents in that context as opposed to with older children which, you know, we're keen to get in and explore that data a lot more in the next few weeks.

MS HOLLONDS: So perhaps a bit more sharing in families with those young children so more stresses. So a question here about family violence. So what about the experiences of family violence?

MS HAND: Yeah. So we didn't ask about family violence specifically or at all really in the survey and we thought about that very deeply and consulted with a number of people with expertise in family violence including our family law and family violence research team and we decided that we did not have confidence that we could do that safely and we felt that that was – safety of people was a priority. When they're locked in homes we didn't know whether they were surveillance of people's use of technology, for example, so we didn't ask. I know that that's a real gap but we had to prioritise the safety of women who might and men who were in that circumstance.

MS HOLLONDS: And there was a further question there about relationship stress. So I know that we did ask questions about relationships. Do you want to say a little bit about what will be coming on that later?

MS HAND: Yeah. So we asked people about their couple relationships. We also asked about relationships between parents and their adult children and we found some interesting things which we will be publishing soon. Looked at – that people were experiencing often or reporting both that they were more engaged with each other and that they were having more meaningful conversations. They were feeling closer but often at the same time arguing more which kind of makes sense but we'll be exploring where that sort of – who's experiencing that more or less in coming work.

MS HOLLONDS: So more time together but also more arguments at the same time?

MS HAND: Yeah and I think you know, understanding the patterns of that. So I think there are probably three groups. There's the groups that have just argued more and not felt closer which is sort of obvious. We've got the groups that are just feeling closer and not reporting arguing more but then there's this really interesting group in between who perhaps are spending more time together than they have for a long time and perhaps – you're the family relationship therapist, Anne, so I'd be interested in your take on this but it's almost like they're recasting the rules of their relationship somewhat. They're finding new ways of being together because they have to and so they've got more conflict but also more closeness.

MS HOLLONDS: M'mm. Yes, well maybe by necessity having to deal with things that they've managed to avoid pre COVID. So that certainly happens. A question here about fathers, Kelly. So did respondents offer any ideas or suggestions for how we can help fathers do more caring during the week?

MS HAND: Well that's interesting, yeah. I think that question's come up a lot today I know when you've been speaking with the media about this. Sort of why – why isn't things – why isn't it shifting? And I think there's multiple factors involved. I mean, people went into with, it's not like equality ended when we went into the pandemic. There, you know, there was inequality and care beforehand. So people had their patterns but those patterns are not just set by their own beliefs, although that's an important part of it. They're sort of set by the context and the circumstances in which they work.

So we know for example that previous research has told us that couples usually have quite equal relationships prior to having children. And they tend to – are more likely to become unequal after they have children. And that's then a set of choices and circumstances that are leading to people then having these more unequal – and some of those are, you know, we were having a conversation yesterday and you brought up that lovely example of Iceland. Where they're paid parental leave, fathers have three months, mothers have three months and then the rest is up to them to choose. And if you don't take, if the fathers don't take it, they lose that leave to the family.

And I think things like that, fathers in Australia are not I think, comfortable or able to take long periods of time to be the primary care giver when their children are really small. And I think that leads to patterns being set up in the way that families operate. And you know, life gets busy. So you know, shifting these things can take some time.

MS HOLLONDS: Well that's right and I think there is something very special about when the first baby comes along in that the patterns - - -

MS HAND: M'hmm.

MS HOLLONDS: - - - that are set in the relationship then tend to stick. So we know from the behavioural sciences that you know, habits are hard to break. So if you've got a very strong gender division with that first baby then it's unlikely to shift much after that. So that's kind of a moment of opportunity there.

MS HAND: Okay.

MS HOLLONDS: But I was kind of – I have to say it was a surprise to me that these sort of very entrenched patterns of behaviour at home were so pandemic resistant. And you know, it makes you wonder well what will it take to shift, given everything else sort of changed around us. But I do wonder whether you know, it might in going forward into the future, you know, like, this is really kind of opened our eyes to how life could be lived differently. And that includes bosses in our workplaces have seen that actually you can work in these flexible ways and get the job done. So perhaps there will be a little bit more of an opportunity for fathers to put their hand up and have a chat to their boss about, well I'd like to finish early one day a week and pick up my kids. Or you know, whatever it is, that we might as a society be more amenable to that kind of view of men in the caring role. I don't know, what do you think?

MS HAND: Yeah oh look I've done lots of research with men who are fathers for 20 odd years around work and family and it's unusual for men not to be interested in spending time, more time with their children. And to not feel frustrated by the responsibilities and expectations on them. And that can come from within the relationship, you know, I always remember one of the first research projects I worked on 20 years ago. Interviewing a dad who said, you know, 'My wife can do, she can stay at home, she cannot stay at home, like I need to support whatever choice she makes but sometimes I'd like to be doing more but I'm not allowed to do that. The world doesn't allow me to want to do that.' And I think that's shifting a bit.


MS HAND: But coming back to you know, maybe this will change in the future. I think for men who are employed, given the upcoming economic, you know the current economic difficulties and the likelihood of that continuing for some time. I think it's also going to be important for employers and bosses, if they have recognised that this is possible for more flexibility. To take the lead in that. Because for men who are feeling perhaps vulnerable in their own employment, asking for a change like this right now is probably quite challenging. Because you don't want to be seen as someone who's less engaged in work rather than more engaged in work. So I think you know, maybe the people who are making the decisions need to lead that conversation in their organisations.

MS HOLLONDS: Absolutely I think that would make a difference. Okay more questions on the board. Still on housework, well we've been talking about childcare but housework is the flipside of that. We need a national discussion about this in terms of risk management for future crisis.


MS HOLLAND: Interesting problem there - - -

MS HAND: That's a great idea.

MS HOLLONDS: So preparing for the next pandemic or other future crisis. So I'll take that as a comment.

MS HAND: Yeah.

MS HOLLONDS: But down to demographics again. What percentage were from a culturally and linguistically diverse background? Do we have that figure?

MS HAND: Ah I think we asked whether people – I need my brains trust which - - -

MS HOLLONDS: That's okay we can take that on notice.

MS HAND: Taking it on notice. Yeah I'll take that on notice.

MS HOLLONDS: Take that on notice, we might come back to that before the end.


MS HOLLONDS: Are you able to provide a state breakdown when you publish on your website please? So will you be publishing - - -

MS HAND: We will explore that.

MS HOLLONDS: - - - on a state basis, yes? What about Aboriginal families and remote families?

MS HAND: So we only had three per cent of our respondents were living in remote areas. And two per cent of our respondents were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families.

MS HOLLAND: M'hmm and they may not have been in remote areas - - -

MS HAND: So it was more - - -

MS HOLLAND: - - - they might've been urban. Okay.

MS HAND: And I think that's something we would like to explore but more in a partnership way with some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers rather than us taking the lead on that. But that's a conversation to have.

MS HOLLAND: So that might be a part of a future survey - - -

MS HAND: M'hmm.

MS HOLLONDS: - - - in the series that we do - - -


MS HOLLONDS: - - - in the coming months. I was wondering – I'm quoting now, 'I was wondering if you were able to get a sense of how the response has changed throughout the survey period? Are you expecting to run another COVID, follow-up COVID survey?' Well yes we are as I think you've said we're planning one in a few months, a further survey. But they're asking about 'Is there any sense of change in the period already?'

MS HAND: Yeah, so that's an interesting question and one we were mindful of because of course as our survey was in the field there was change unfolding across different states and territories. Look I don't think so, I think people generally still were experiencing quite a lot of restriction and I think the restriction around spending time with family and people close to them, seemed to be the thing that drove a lot of those responses. And they are still, particularly around engaging with older people in your family, quite constrained.


MS HAND: So not yet. We didn't – we hadn't picked that up but we will do some quite fine grained analysis as we go forward just to make sure that we haven't missed something there.


MS HAND: And whether there's more significant trends sort of early in the survey period as opposed to later. And then yes, we're looking to go into the field again in October and we're both wanting to follow-up with the families who – or people who participated in this one but also very keen to invite other people to share their experiences too.

MS HOLLONDS: Yeah I think that's a really important element of this that it's just not a static snapshot.

MS HAND: M'hmm.

MS HOLLONDS: We understand – well you know, the situation is very fluid and changeable but so are families are you know, constantly changing how they arrange things. And how they're experiencing things. So to try and capture that's quite difficult I think. But this sort of repeat sort of series of surveys might be able to get to that.

MS HAND: M'hmm.

MS HOLLONDS: Okay so here's a question. I'll throw this one to you Kelly. 'When will women's work be valued?'

MS HAND: Well I think – yes that's an excellent question. I think it's - - -

MS HOLLONDS: Excellent question.

MS HAND: - - - it's really, it's really hard isn't it. And I guess you know, what does valued mean? I think in individual families, you know I was getting a pep talk about how amazing I am when I announced that not only had I managed to do a full day of work yesterday, cooked dinner, do all the washing and a couple of other things at home, I was told gee you're amazing. So you know, can get appreciation and value at that point of the day. But yeah, look it's a tricky one, it really is and I think the fact that we see these things as women's work is really challenging. Because, you know caring for ourselves, caring for our family, caring for our children and older people is work that we should all be engaged in. And you know, it's sad because it is a really fulfilling part of people's lives. The caring part of your life is a really important part. And to limit that because of gender or to over impose that because of gender just, you know it's incredibly frustrating but - - -

MS HOLLONDS: Yeah and I guess I would add to what you're saying that the fact that we define it as women's work - - -

MS HAND: M'hmm.

MS HOLLONDS: - - - alone is one of the issues. And that we also – I think it's an issue that we separate out parenting you know. I've heard a lot of discussion - - -

MS HAND: M'hmm.

MS HOLLONDS: - - - in the media about, you know, dad's doing more direct care with children, so they're much more involved in parenting. But not so much the housework. This is the general perception but actually the fact that we divide the two I think actually is a little bit odd in that, you know we could view it as a group of things that we do that are about caring for our families. You know so - - -

MS HAND: Yeah.

MS HOLLONDS: - - - looking after your family involves a whole bunch of things. And we've arbitrarily somehow divided off parenting from housework. So that's a bit of a thing that we need to totally think about as a society. There's a question here about community. 'Was there a difference about how people felt about their local community or neighbourhood during this time? Did we get a sense of how they're experiencing their neighbourhood and community?'

MS HAND: So we did ask people some questions about their level of closeness and engagement to extended family but also their neighbours. And interestingly we kind of thought that maybe people would feel more close to their neighbours, probably led by people like me who you know, had the neighbourhood WhatsApp group and felt like that was a very engaged group of people. But on the whole people weren't saying that they felt closer to their neighbours. Some of the qualitative data though did seem to suggest people were enjoying discovering their local community. That being at home meant that they were going to places in their community that they wouldn't normally do. They were seeing people out and about, so we'll explore that in more depth and see if there's particular groups that maybe are feeling more engaged.

MS HOLLONDS: Yes there was a bit of discussion though, again earlier on about how we were going back to the 70s and 80s and you know - - -

MS HAND: M'hmm.

MS HOLLONDS: - - - riding our bikes and chatting to neighbours and that kind of thing.

MS HAND: M'hmm.

MS HOLLONDS: But maybe that wasn't everywhere. And maybe - - -

MS HAND: Yeah.

MS HOLLONDS: - - - you know, that's a more select group has experienced that.

MS HAND: M'hmm.

MS HOLLONDS: Mental health, 'Did the survey have any questions or scales about mental health and insights into family wellbeing during this time?

MS HAND: Yeah we do and we will be reporting on that. So it's a bit frustrating for people I'm sure to hear that we're not there yet. But we asked the Kessler 6, K6 and we also asked the more global question around things like people's gambling behaviour, alcohol use, their physical health, feelings of isolation and connectedness. So all of that work is being done at the moment to look at those impacts.

MS HOLLONDS: M'hmm great. 'Where will the report be sent such that it can influence government policy?'

MS HAND: Well our new – well you could answer that one, we're already starting to talk to government - - -


MS HAND: - - - where we've been - - -

MS HOLLONDS: - - - we briefed them yesterday, we actually briefed them yesterday.

MS HAND: Yeah. And there are other departments that we're briefing who we've spoken to who've got interests in different elements of our work. And we will continue to do that. There is a lot of interest which is great because I think there's a lot we can contribute to peoples' thinking as they go forward and think about policy the next you know few years probably.

MS HOLLONDS: M'hmm, yes so I guess I'll just add that, what I've observed is very much an interest at the government level.

MS HAND: M'hmm.

MS HOLLONDS: And a sense in which the wellbeing of families and their members is actually on the agenda.

MS HAND: M'hmm.

MS HOLLONDS: And so this information I think will be well – well has been welcomed and will be welcomed further right across government portfolios.

MS HAND: M'hmm.

MS HOLLAND: 'Have there been any similar surveys conducted overseas and if so, how does the Australian experience compare?'

MS HAND: Well that's an interesting question, there are surveys, I think –we've been talking to Canada a fair bit so I don't know whether they're watching but hi Nora and Jen if you are. And they've been doing lots of surveying of families but quite, sort of quite regular ones with the Canadian Bureau of Statistics and, sorry I've gone blank on the proper name for that.

MS HOLLONDS: Statistic Canada I think they're called.

MS HAND: Oh yeah that's right. So we know that they've been doing some work on that. And we've chatted to them and there seem to be some similar patterns emerging. I think there's more kind of focussed on work and family kind of surveys overseas that are happening. There's parenting focus, I think probably, I don't, I'm not aware of one that's as global as ours in terms of the kind of issues that we're looking at. We were really trying to understand what family life is like for anyone, so we weren't just families with young children, we weren't just work and family. We're interested in how people who live alone are experiencing family life. And I guess we haven't touched on that so far today but one of the areas we're really interested in is you know, when you do live alone and maybe you're very much an active member of a family but you can't see them in the ways you traditionally do. What has life been like for you?


MS HAND: And we're looking at that at the moment too so.

MS HOLLONDS: M'hmm I think that is an important point because the family doesn't necessarily equate with a household.

MS HAND: Right.

MS HOLLONDS: So it's the family that's at a distance as well that people - - -


MS HOLLONDS: - - - are experiencing one way or the other. 'Housing, given the themes you describe in relation to those under 30, should there be further consideration in relation to affordable housings?'

MS HAND: Yeah I think affordable housing is a huge issue for Australians. It was pre-pandemic and I'm not a housing specialist but you can certainly tell from our data that housing is not just even something they're worried about now. Like the quote we had earlier in the presentation, particularly young people. They're kind of worried that, they didn't feel optimistic before the pandemic - - -


MS HAND: - - - about their opportunities to find affordable housing. And I think they're losing optimism about that now based on some of the comments that we got, m'hmm.

MS HOLLONDS: M'hmm that's right. Kind of a segue I heard a story this morning that came out of the US and where they also have experienced young people going back home because of the circumstances. And that that's been seen by some it's been reported, as kind of a positive that they've really loved going back to their previous homes and their rooms. You know, their childhood environment. And that's been a nice cocooning for them. So some have experienced that as a very nurturing piece during a very stressful time. So there are all these different shades on the stories aren't there that it's not just one thing.

MS HAND: Oh yeah.

MS HOLLONDS: It’s not a straight line curve one way or the other. You know, people are complex and family relationships are very, very – and their circumstances are very complex.

MS HAND: 'Do we know whether we had many carers respond? Kin, grandparent, foster and permanent carers? What were the issues they encountered that were different?'

MS HAND: M'hmm that's an excellent question. I'd have to have, in terms of our proportion I wouldn't have that to hand. I do remember you know, I've been actively looking through all of the open responses and certainly there are some grandparents who were you know, carers for their children – grandchildren who talked about some of the complexities around – I'm trying to think. No I can't really say anything much. But yeah we will explore that some more.

MS HOLLONDS: Yep, 'Separated families how have they experienced COVID-19?'

MS HAND: Yeah, so we do have some questions which we are looking at around how people have managed sharing the parenting of children during this time. And you know I think it's on the whole been challenging. And we will be looking at that I think in more depth but I think there's certainly a sense that there's some families who've had long periods of separation from their children because of the restrictions. And that's been particularly challenging where families are across different states. And I expect given what's happening right now that that will continue. I think it will be really interesting in October to see whether patterns have been re-established since the pandemic. Or whether they're sort of still in a bit hiatus and a bit of uncertainty for separated couples as they go through it all.

MS HOLLONDS: Yeah and I guess it reinforces there are some families that have additional layers of complexity in that.

MS HAND: M'hmm.

MS HOLLONDS: And that's one of them. There was a question here about 'Any data around how families are viewing early learning services at this time?'

MS HAND: M'hmm, so when we, drilling a little bit more about why people weren't using childcare, formal childcare - - -

MS HOLLONDS: Because they've dropped by about half didn't it.


MS HOLLONDS: Usage of childcare dropped by half.

MS HAND: Yeah. It was largely related to health reasons and people being concerned about health reasons. And so I think that, you know, it'd be really interesting to see whether or not that's now gone up. I mean, anecdotally I think we know of lots of families that have re-engaged with childcare recently. I think it was more challenging for parents to try and work out what to do around their young children's early learning and making meaningful experiences for their kids at home. Some parents were worried about that. Other parents I think were, you know just coping and keeping everyone busy and hoping that they could juggle all of those demands. Particularly if they children who were under school age and school age children. You know, there was a real sort of triple shift in some ways for them. They were full time parenting small children they were educating their kids and they were working too.

MS HOLLONDS: Yeah, I was surprised to see that massive drop-off of use of childcare.

MS HAND: M'hmm.

MS HOLLONDS: But I know, you know, obviously there was quite a lot of anxiety I think out there.

MS HAND: M'hmm.

MS HOLLONDS: A question here about, poverty, 'Ongoing poverty and poverty relief, COVID supplement for Newstart and JobSeeker recipients? I guess we haven't really done that analysis yet have we of the income impacts and the financial circumstances of people. But perhaps we'll have more to say about that as well later.

MS HAND: Yep, yeah so we certainly collected whether people were, or their partner were receiving JobKeeper or JobSeeker. We've collected information about peoples change in incomes. And we've also explored whether they've tapped into their superannuation. So all of those analyses are underway and I think, yeah it will be really interesting to see who are the people that are most affected and how do families experience this across families, not just as individuals I think is the key.

MS HOLLONDS: That's right and of course we do have an especially long way to go with the economic down turn, you know, once we get the vaccine there'll be this very long tail of still economic issues.

MS HAND: Yeah and certainly - - -

MS HOLLONDS: And so we'll be talking about - - -

MS HAND: - - - the qualitative comments – oh sorry Anne.

MS HOLLONDS: I was going to say we will be talking about that side of this for a long time.

MS HAND: Yeah and one of the unexpected findings for me well when I thought about it, it made sense but was that parents of adult children who have lost work, they were reporting that they were really having to dip into their savings. And they were worried - - -


MS HAND: - - - about their own financial future. So some comments from parents who were paying the rent and living expenses for their adult children who weren't living with them during the pandemic. Others who have had their children come home and are basically financially supporting them and having to eat into their own superannuation savings. So I think that will be something that will be very interesting to monitor going forward.


MS HAND: So it's almost like families are taking a double hit. So the young person loses their income and their ability to pay their way, their own expenses and save. And then their parents are also then eating into their savings to help them out so.

MS HOLLONDS: Yeah. Now I did hear a story about a young person that moved back home to support his mother who was a sole parent of younger child and had lost her job.

MS HAND: M'hmm.

MS HOLLONDS: So it kind of can work both ways. Look we've got one more question and we might finish on this one Kelly.

MS HAND: M'hmm.

MS HOLLONDS: The question is, 'Are people taking COVID-19 seriously or not?'

MS HAND: M'hmm.

MS HOLLONDS: I wonder if this is person in Melbourne. 'I think this goes to the way people replied.' So I'm not quite sure how to take that. But do we get a sense that people are taking COVID-19 seriously?

MS HAND: Certainly I think in our survey and you know obviously probably they're people who were interested in talking about how their lives are impacted by COVID-19. I think they were, yeah.


MS HAND: Well we do have questions, I mean, we had a relatively small proportion of people who were directly affected themselves or a very small proportion themselves or someone else having had COVID. And yet - - -


MS HAND: - - - we do have questions. And people were changing the way they live down to you know, grandparents stopping caring for their grandchildren, parents having to manage on their own without the extra supports. So they are, you know, they didn't have to stop doing those things. No one forced them, it was recommended. But people made those decisions themselves. I think people are very concerned about the long term impacts of this on their communities and of their families. And that really comes through in the way that people talk about their experiences in the open responses but how they've answered the questions overall.

MS HOLLONDS: M'hmm I agree. So as I said we're going to finish on that question. Thank you very much Kelly. And apologies to the listeners who wanted more of that other information which is still yet to come.

MS HAND: M'hmm.

MS HOLLONDS: But appreciate you taking those questions Kelly and we'll all be looking forward to hearing more from the team as this work is analysed further. Just a few little announcements before we wrap up. As you exit the webinar there's a brief survey we'd like you to complete. This helps us to keep improving how we run the webinars. On our website you'll find the recordings of all the previous webinars that we've held during June. And just while we're talking about those, I just wanted to do a shout out to our fabulous webinar team and Kyle, Jessie Winfield, Tracey Young and Alister Lamont. They've worked tirelessly behind the scenes and Tracey here next to me, helping me with the questions. It's been a fabulous wild ride during June. And the webinar teams also support our CFCA webinars many of the participants today would be on the CFCA subscriber list and you would know well the fabulous webinars we run from AIFS for that program as well. So thank you, thank you to those teams. You would also have heard by now that we've had to reschedule our conference. This is why we ran the webinars this month, hearing from keynote speakers who would've been speaking at our conference. So it's now on next year, registration is already open, the conference website will go live in the near future. But you can already register for that and it's going to be a cracker, let me tell you. So get in and register for that. And finally again Kelly thank you so much for joining us today. It's a big day, it's great to launch this survey.

MS HAND: M'hmm.

MS HOLLONDS: And thank you to all the team that you mentioned in your introduction, our fabulous families in Australia survey team. Thanks to everybody. Thanks to all the participants. Great questions today and that's it.

MS HAND: M'hmm.

MS HOLLONDS: Thanks everyone, bye.

MS HAND: Thank you, bye.



The transcript is provided for information purposes only and is provided on the basis that all persons accessing the transcript undertake responsibility for assessing the relevance and accuracy of its content. Before using the material contained in the transcript, the permission of the relevant presenter should be obtained.

The Commonwealth of Australia, represented by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), is not responsible for, and makes no representations in relation to, the accuracy of this transcript. AIFS does not accept any liability to any person for the content (or the use of such content) included in the transcript. The transcript may include or summarise views, standards or recommendations of third parties. The inclusion of such material is not an endorsement by AIFS of that material; nor does it indicate a commitment by AIFS to any particular course of action

Slide outline

1. Families in Australia Survey: Life during COVID-19 
Early findings

Kelly Hand 
July 2020

2. About the survey

  • Life during COVID-19 was the first survey in the Families in Australia (AIFS’ flagship survey series).
  • The survey ran from 1 May to 9 June 2020, during the COVID‑19 (coronavirus) pandemic.
  • We focussed on how families:
    • adjusted to the pandemic, and the restrictions and programs that were put in place
    • experienced the social and economic impacts of the pandemic
    • supported each other, even when they didn’t, or couldn’t, live together
    • protected their physical and mental health.

3. About the survey cont..

Table showing survey sample characteristics percentages

Female - 81 
Male - 18 
Other/prefer not to say - 1 
18-39 years old - 26 
40-59 years old - 41 
60+ years old - 33 
Bachelor degree or higher - 62 
Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander - 2 
Single person households - 14 
Multiple adult household (no children) - 20 
Couple-only households - 27 
Household with children - 39

4. About the survey: Pandemic timeline

Illustration showing the timeline of the COVID-19 pandemic from January 25 to June 9, 2020.

  • January 25 - First confirmed cases of COVID-19 arrive in Australia, from Wuhan, China
  • January 29 - Queensland first state to declare public health emergency
  • February 1 - Foreign nationals from mainland China banned from entering Australia
  • March 2 - First cases of community transmission within Australia
  • March 12 - PM announces $17.6bn stimulus package to protect economy; panic buying toilet paper!
  • March 27 - Schools close in Victoria; Australiawide, students increasingly learning from home
  • March 23 - Closure of clubs, restaurants, places of worship; NRL suspends season
  • March 22 - PM announces second stimulus package, of $66bn; AFL suspends season
  • March 20 - General ban on travel to Australia (except for Australian residents)
  • March 19 - ‘Social distancing’ imposed for clubs, restaurants etc.; Ruby Princess discharges 2,700 passengers in Sydney, hundreds infected
  • March 28 - New daily cases in Australia peak at 468, cumulative cases 3,634
  • March 29 - PM gives ‘strong guidance’ for people to work/ study from home and minimise outings; in Victoria, rules have been in place since Mar 18
  • March 30 - PM announces JobKeeper wage subsidy program
  • April 6 - Child Care Relief Package provides free child care to families, with priority for essential workers and vulnerable children
  • April 15–30 - Daily new cases drop to less than 25/day; curve is flattening, but restrictions stay in place
  • April 26 - Launch of the COVIDSafe contact-tracing app
  • May 1 - Life during COVID-19 survey launched; new daily cases 14, cumulative cases 6,763
  • May 16 - State governments easing restrictions; NSW allows up to 10 patrons per venue
  • May 25 - Majority of students have returned to classrooms; NRL season restarts
  • June 9 - Life during COVID-19 survey closed; new daily cases 5, cumulative cases 7,267, deaths 102


5. Key findings

Infographic text description

  • The proportion of people always working from home rose from 7% before COVID-19 to 60% during it.
  • Before COVID‑19, 30% of families used parent-only care. That rose to 64% of families during COVID‑19.
  • While parents worked from home, 40% always or often ‘actively’ cared for children during work.


6. Key findings cont..

Infographic text description

Almost half of respondents reported they or their partner had lost employment, reduced hours or wages. However 65% reported no real change to personal income.

Young adults were almost four times (15% vs 4%) more likely to ask for help from government NGOs.

7. How we worked when we worked from home

  • The proportion of people ‘always’ working from home rose from 7% to 60% during the pandemic.
  • Families with children under 18 years, where the parents remained employed during COVID‑19, reported that 60% of mothers and 41% of fathers always worked from home.

8. How we worked when we worked from home part 2

Infographic text description

  • Caring for children while working from home. 
  • 40% always or often actively caring for children while working.
  • 28% always or often passively caring for children while working.

9. How we worked when we worked from home part 3

*****Working from home and home schooling two children has been a huge burden, very difficult for us all. I struggle to complete activities sent by the school while working, and feel guilty and worried that my children aren't keeping up.

Female, 40, lives in a major city, household with children

10. How we cared for our children

Graph showing care arrangements for children under 13 years, by age of youngest child, before COVID-19 and during COVID-19.

  • The survey recorded a steep drop in approved care usage and all other forms of non-parental care: 
  • 52% used approved care before COVID-19, and 26% during
  • 32% used grandparent or other informal care before, and 9% during
  • 8% used nannies or babysitters before, and 5% during.
  • While 30% of families used parent-only care before COVID-19, 64% used it during. And hardly anyone (1%) started using approved care during COVID-19; the same for other forms of non-parental care.

11. How we cared for our children: Grandparent care

  • Grandparent care was a casualty of the pandemic.
  • Nearly three out of 10 grandparents told us they provided child care at least weekly before COVID‑19.
  • Most grandparents told us that during COVID‑19 they ceased providing care.
  • How we cared for our children: Grandparent care

12. How we cared for our children: Grandparent care cont..

********I no longer see my only grandchild at all. He is 3 years old. I cannot help my daughter and son-in-law at all, because of the border closure between NSW and Queensland.

Female, 69, lives in a regional area, single-adult household

13. How we cared for our children: Gendered care

  • ‘Who typically cared for the children?’ before COVID‑19:
    • ‘always or usually’ the mother 54%
    • equally between mother and father 38%
    • always or usually the father 8%.
  • ‘Who typically cares for the children?’ during COVID‑19:
    • ‘always or usually’ the mother 52%
    • equally between mother and father 37%
    • always or usually the father 11%.

14. How we did the housework

Infographic text description

Female partner always or usually does the housework:

  • Before COVID-19: 43%
  • During COVID-19: 41%

Housework shared equally:

  • Before COVID-19: 46%
  • During COVID-19: 48%

Male partner always or usually does the housework:

  • Before COVID-19: 9%
  • During COVID-19: 9%

15. How we did the housework cont..

********I am cooking a little more, but it’s mostly the same.

Male, 57, lives in a major city, multiple-adult household, no children

16. How we worked, or not: A tale of two cohorts

  • Just under 10% of participants said they’d been stood down, made redundant, or lost their job or their business during COVID‑19.
  • However 21% of under-30s said they’d been stood down, made redundant, or lost their job or their business during COVID‑19.

17. How we worked, or not: Changes to employment and income

65% of participants reported no real change to income during COVID‑19.

Infographic showing the pandemic effects on income.

  • Overall: 25% decrease, 8% increase
  • Under 30s: 30% decrease, 15% increase

18. How we worked, or not: Changes to employment and income part 2

********I am having to be extremely cautious of what I spend and help out more than usual with finances around the home. I fear that I'll never be able to own my own home, not even in partnership with someone.

Female, 20, lives in a major city, multiple-adult household, no children

19. How we worked, or not: Changes to living arrangements part 3

Percentage reporting who they live with has changed, by age group

Graph showing the percentage of reporting who they live with has changed by age group

Under 30s were most affected by changes to work during COVID‑19 and also the least likely cohort to own their home. 21% reported changes to their living arrangements during the pandemic.

20. How we worked, or not: Changes to living arrangements

*******My partner and I were living overseas at the start of the outbreak and would normally live with other adults in a share house. However, we didn’t have a residence in Australia when we returned early so we moved in with his family.

Female, 28, lives in a major city, household with children

21. How we worked, or not: Getting by with a little help

Many people relied on support during the pandemic.

  • Asking for help from friends or family
    • overall: 7%
    • under 30s: 21%
  • Asking for help from government or NGOs
    • overall: 21%
    • under 30s: 15%

22. What we missed most

Word cloud showing what respondents missed the most during 'iso'.

23. For more information

Visit the Families in Australia Survey project page.

Or email [email protected].


Kelly Hand is Deputy Director (Research) at the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS). In this role she is responsible for the Institute’s research and knowledge translation program. The Institute’s work seeks to increase understanding about the factors that help Australian families thrive, or that are barriers to their wellbeing.

Kelly has worked in the area of family and policy research for over 20 years, beginning her career at the Brotherhood of St Laurence and then joining the Institute in January 2001. A sociologist by training, her research has focused on the impacts of policies and services systems on families. A particular area of expertise is her ability to work collaboratively with policy makers and other stakeholders to develop research and evaluation projects that create impact through both their rigor and relevance for policy decision making.