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Unpaid caregiving and stress in Sweden, Canada, and the United Kingdom

8 September 2022

Unpaid caregiving and stress in Sweden, Canada, and the United Kingdom

Maria Stanfors, Lund University , Sweden

Jeffrey Neilson, Centre for Economic Demography


With population ageing, demand for unpaid caregiving is increasing across Europe and North America. Many individuals are experiencing the potentially stressful combination of providing care to elderly parents while still employed. Most empirical evidence suggests that unpaid caregiving negatively impacts the caregiver's mental and physical health, including stress, and across countries it affects women more than men. One limitation of the research on caregiver health is statistical inference, as much evidence comes either from studies on caregivers only or from studies that have few caregivers in the data. Another limitation is that this research primarily targets caregivers of older persons with dementia or other specific conditions, creating a sample bias problem of over-representing caregivers in high stress contexts.

In this study, we fill in research gaps by using nationally representative time use surveys from Sweden (2000-01 and 2010-11), Canada (2010 and 2015) and the United Kingdom (2014-2015) and by selecting a sub-sample of men and women aged 45-74 (N=29,510). The data contain a substantial number of caregivers, defined as individuals who provided unpaid care to another adult on the diary day (n=3,032). Cross-country comparative research is also lacking in the related literature yet may be informative given the similar demographic contexts across Europe and North America; however, policy contexts vary when it comes to public support for work-care compatibility, carers' well-being, and gender equality in the labour market and household.

We compare caregivers to non-caregivers, examining self-reported stress as one important aspect of caregiver mental health, and link this to time allocation for activities which have an association with health and mental well-being, including leisure. Time use evidence of these relationships has so far received little empirical attention in the literature on unpaid care given to other adults. We ask whether caregivers are more stressed than non-caregivers. Do gender and country differences exist regarding the association between unpaid caregiving and stress? To what extent is the intensity of caregiving associated with stress? Does this association vary by gender and country? To what extent is stress associated with caregivers' time allocation in terms of paid work, routine housework, leisure, and sleep?

Multivariate regression analyses confirmed that women were more stressed than men. Regarding unpaid caregiving, women who provided intensive caregiving were more likely to experience stress than other comparable women in Sweden and Canada. Combining employment and unpaid caregiving was particularly stressful for women in Sweden, while providing care within the household increased women's stress in Canada. The analyses revealed two potential mechanisms for caregiver stress in the countries studied: less time for leisure and likewise for sleep.

The findings indicate that unpaid caregiving is positively associated with stress among women when seen in relation to the way caregivers trade off time, not least to aid their recovery. The findings also uncover gender differences in the association between caregiving and stress, providing a more nuanced understanding of the time trade-offs individuals with caregiving duties make across different contexts.