U of C study finds women suffered more during first months of COVID isolation with anxiety, depression

A University of Calgary study examining sleep, empathy and mood during the first few months of isolation due to COVID-19 has found that women appear to be suffering more than men.

Calgary Counselling Centre says it did not see an increase in female clients at that time

A University of Calgary study found that during the first few months of the pandemic, women suffered more than men with poorer sleep and more anxiety, depression and trauma, while also feeling more empathetic than men. (Shutterstock)

A University of Calgary study examining sleep, empathy and mood during the first few months of isolation due to COVID-19 has found that women appear to be suffering more than men.

U of C researcher Veronica Guadagni led an online survey of more than 600 Canadians between March 23 and June 7 of this year. She aimed to find out how the lockdown impacted people's moods and sleep.

"We found that there was a great difference between the two sexes and genders and in a way that females had lower quality of sleep, more insomnia and greater anxiety and depression symptoms and more trauma," said Guadagni.

"Then we tracked changes through the course of the isolation. So we add the number of days that these people are in isolation and look at how things changed, and they changed for both men and women. But woman had greater changes, so we saw that anxiety, depression and trauma really worsened through the course of the isolation period in women."

Veronica Guadagni conducted a online survey of Canadians between March 23 and June 7. (University of Calgary)

Dr. Robbie Babins-Wagner, CEO of the Calgary Counselling Centre, said that didn't translate locally to more women seeking counselling.

"Our data shows that, for example, we put men and women together, there was not significant higher distress during that beginning part of COVID, and we're looking at March 16th to the end of May. So there were no differences overall in that time period compared to the year before, and our sample is quite large." 

This year, between March and May, Babins-Wagner said the centre had 7,341 clients, and in 2019 it had 7,276 people who were in counselling during that period.

"And females did not have significantly higher distress during that same period of March 16 to the end of May, and males didn't have higher distress cause during that period of time.

Babins-Wagner said females in Calgary have, however, expressed higher levels of distress overall than males during the pandemic.

"The pattern that we saw in their numbers was exactly the same pattern for the year before, which doesn't make it necessarily a COVID phenomenon," she said. 

Babins-Wagner said it is possible that the centre's data will reflect the findings of the U of C study in months to come because it's possible that while survey respondents expressed these feelings, they may not have sought out professional help or counselling at the time. 

Babins-Wagner noted that stress effects might emerge in the aftermath of the pandemic, as people go back to work and possibly face reduced hours or unemployment.

She said the counselling centre's data is currently being evaluated.

Robbie Babins-Wagner is the CEO of the Calgary Counselling Centre. (Calgary Counselling Centre)

Guadagni said the study also found that women reported higher scores on a scale used to measure empathy. 

"They seem to care more for others or understand better emotions of others even though they were more anxious and more depressed than we thought," she said.

The greater empathy was, however, associated with greater anxiety, depression and trauma.

And while they didn't collect the data necessary to prove it, Guadagni hypothesises that greater empathy could lead women to have greater pro-social behaviour.

"You want to expect that if someone is more concerned about the well-being of others, they tend to follow the guidelines that protect others," she said.

Guadagni said she wasn't surprised to see that women appear to be affected more by the period of isolation.

"We know that women carry the load in many situations," she said. "In this case, many women had to deal with the family and the role as a caregiver, but also maintain their job and occupation and also provide for their families. So this was not a surprise."

The U of C researchers examined data from 573 participants — 112 men and 459 women — with a mean age of 25.9 years.

More than 66 per cent of the voluntary participants reported poor quality of sleep. More than 39 per cent reported increased symptoms of insomnia, and anxiety and distress also increased in the whole sample. 


Lucie Edwardson


Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson or reach her by email at


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