Dec. 2, 2020

Alberta families in economic pain but still resilient during pandemic

COVID-19 Impact Study looks at how families manage reduced income, social isolation, relationship stress
COVID Impact study
COVID Impact study Colourbox

A UCalgary study of 1,300 Alberta families conducted a few months into the pandemic found that more than half who participated had their incomes slashed and that most were finding it difficult to manage work, school and activities, resulting in increased tensions in their relationships.

The COVID-19 Impact Study is providing a revealing snapshot of how families are coping during a challenging time. Led by Dr. Suzanne Tough, PhD, the study explores the impacts of the pandemic on risks and resilience of children and families to understand what supports are needed. Tough is a professor at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) and member of the CSM's Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute.

“School closures, sports and social activities cancelled, and parents living with the stress of job loss or income reduction — so much has changed,” says Tough. “We wanted to understand the magnitude of the disruption and how families are coping, so we can determine what resources are most needed.”

Study results finds job losses and increased stress

The research team learned from its May-to-June survey that families are hurting. The families who participated are members of the All Our Families cohort. They represent a typical urban family in Canada with the majority employed, educated and earning more than $80,000 per year before the pandemic. “This is important because our findings reveal that all families are facing challenges,” says Tough. The study found:

  • One in five families lost all sources of income
  • 58 per cent of families saw their incomes decline through job loss or reduced employment hours
  • 40 per cent of families reported tension in their partner relationships
  • 35 per cent of mothers reported either elevated stress, anxiety, and/or depression
  • 30 per cent of mothers are concerned about their children’s behaviour and mood
  • 80 per cent of families were finding it difficult to manage school, their own work and activities

On the positive side, the researchers found many mothers and fathers felt closer to their children, and half of siblings reported being closer to one another. Tough cautions that families experiencing several stresses may reach a "tipping point."  

“To help families cope we can reassure them that they are not alone, provide low-cost nutritional food options, encourage families to develop routines to reduce stress, and nudge families to stay connected which improves mood," says Tough. "We can also remind parents that time, attention and shared activities through reading or games are the most effective way to help kids thrive in these times — and in all times.

Dr. Suzanne Tough, PhD

Suzanne Tough is the research lead for the COVID-19 Impact Study.


Tough presented the research last week to UCalgary’s alumni Idea Exchange event and to SHE Innovates, a social change agency created by the United Nations for women. Tough is a 2019 She Innovates awardee. She is hopeful that the information families are providing can lead to optimal community support and programs.

Together, armed with the facts and data, we can all make the best choices and decisions to support healthier kids, families and communities.

The All Our Families cohort is a group being studied over time. It looks at biological, sociological and behavioural outcomes of families in Alberta. The cohort was established by Tough and her team in 2008 with the first moms and babies providing vital information about their lives.

The study still collects data and includes over 3,000 mothers and their children. This research uncovers new knowledge on a range of health issues including high-risk babies and their outcomes, maternal depression, exposure to abuse, and use of community resources. The research program is generously supported by the community through the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation

Suzanne Tough is a Max Bell Foundation Burns Memorial Fund Fellow and a professor in the departments of Paediatrics and Community Health Sciences, at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) and a member of the CSM’s O’Brien Institute for Public Health, the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute and Owerko Centre.

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