COVID-19 Retrospective #3: Pandemic Effects on Daily Life: Stories of Struggle, Resilience, and Hope
Peoples’ real-world stories provide a rich and at times heartbreaking glimpse of how relationships, daily activities, and behaviors changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
By: Lori Eronimous, Marilyn Salzman, and Bill Skeet, and with special thanks to TryMyUI for sponsoring our task-based research.
In April 2021, as part of a U.S. based year-over-year study (April 2020 and April 2021) of how people are interacting with and responding to COVID-19 news and information, we observed 42 people use the web to find answers to key questions about the Coronavirus. We also invited them to share stories about the impact of the pandemic on their personal, work, and family lives. Their candid stories are both touching and heartbreaking. They show how many of our fellow Americans have struggled with and tried to rebound from the pandemic.
Look for a follow-up article that covers how these same participants used the web to find COVID-19 vaccines and medicines that are available, how to get tested or vaccinated, and what local guidelines are in place.
See our series overview, COVID-19 Retrospectives: A blog series about the complex ecosystem of news & information, trust & distrust, and experiences during the pandemic for more details about the studies and methodology. For the full set of articles on this research (including 2020 articles), visit our COVID-19 Research blog.
The participants in this research described the effects of COVID-19 in honest and straightforward ways; none were reluctant to discuss the effects.
Overall, they described:
Struggles with mental health issues such as dealing with anxiety, depression, worry, and stress.
Sadness for the loss of in-person social activities with friends (karaoke, gyms, sporting events, bars, and restaurants) and missing family celebrations (graduations, birthdays) as they isolated themselves at home per guidelines for staying safe.
Adapting to online or phone communication and meetings with family members as they adapted to social distancing guidelines.
Quarantining in close quarters with family for months created tension with members who didn’t take steps to prevent COVID-19, wouldn’t get vaccinated, were at high risk, or simply “got on each others’ nerves.”
That their work lives were less impacted by the pandemic than their personal and family lives. They hoped that the work-from-home situation would remain permanent, and enjoyed the benefits of saving money, no commute time, and better work/life balance.
Hope that the pandemic is winding down and looking forward to in-person gatherings, travel, sports, returning to school, and visiting family.
We evaluated 42 participants’ accounts of the effects of COVID on their personal, work, and family lives and assigned a simple sentiment value of positive, neutral, or negative. Figure 1 maps the overall sentiment of the participants’ descriptions of the effects of COVID:
Fewer people reported a negative impact of the pandemic on work life than on personal or family life. In part, this might be influenced by our participant sample (an online TryMyUI panel) since many participants in this research already were working remotely on computers or easily made the transition to working from home.
As expected, the pandemic's negative impact on personal and family life was a major theme. People described missing in-person gatherings and in the worst cases grieving the loss of friends and family to COVID-19. Their frustration was evident:
I don't want to get on a soapbox, but wear the mask, get the vaccine, stay socially distant. Don't travel in packs. Please be smart out there. That's all. Think about others!
People who described neutral effects of the pandemic adapted to electronic communication replacing in-person socialization, found respite in new hobbies and exercise, or claimed to be introverts for whom stay-at-home orders had little impact.
However some people reported positive changes. For them, the pandemic resulted in an improvement in their family lives as members grew closer and endured the pandemic by relying on each other for support. Several people expressed hope for vaccines as a path to returning to normal lives.
Digging deeper, the participants’ real-world stories provide a rich and at times heartbreaking glimpse of how relationships, daily activities, and behaviors changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID effects on personal life
Not surprisingly, mental health* is the main category of feedback about the pandemic’s effect on personal life. People openly described challenges with depression, anxiety, grief, worry, and stress:
“I'm a very introverted person and it was interesting that I longed during this process for human interaction…because I live alone.”
“I have anxiety and OCD and it has been very trigger-y. I was worried about germs before COVID started and then COVID came about.”
“Essentially the pandemic made me hide under my bed.”
“Quite a big toll on my mental health because I've wanted to get out of my city and go do something different.”
This feedback aligns with findings from the National Alliance on Mental Illness: We weren’t ready for mental, physical toll of COVID-19, experts say — and it’s not over yet, posted on May 19, 2020.
* You can find free mental health support from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Call the HelpLine Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.–8 p.m., ET. 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), email email@example.com, text NAMI to 741-741, or visit www.nami.org/help.
On the other hand, a few participants discovered ways to maintain positive mental health with hobbies, exercise, and diet:
“The pandemic enabled me to focus on a lot of my hobbies and I've felt like I've gained a little bit more perspective on life and realized what's important to me.”
“I've battled with depression off and on throughout the year and I noticed some triggers. I started trying to exercise more and I actually ordered equipment and had it shipped to my house. So half of my basement is a gym now… probably helped to keep the depression at bay.”
“Everything was fine after I started eating better.”
" I found that I started doing a lot more exercise on my own and going to uh the park walking outside just doing activities outside where it's much safer uh to control spread."
Being unable to participate in social activities is another major effect of the pandemic, particularly traveling and “going out.” All participants described that they stopped participating in public social activities, in alignment with federal and local guidelines during the pandemic:
“I used to go out a lot because I am in my 20s. So you know I had a lot going on, but now you can't and there's nothing that you can do about it.”
“Social connection definitely suffered over the last year. I haven't seen many of my friends and family in person. It's mostly been video calls and phone calls and chats.”
Two participants shared personal stories about dating and maintaining relationships during the pandemic:
“It [personal life] has been affected in a good way because I was stuck in the US and I met someone who I fell in love with.”
“Dating was very hard. You have to rely on dating apps, but then also going on dates with people when you're wearing your mask and trying to find out information. It's very hard to progress in a relationship.”
And one participant shared their unforeseen pause in their process to seek asylum in the US:
“I'm not from the States. I moved as an asylum seeker and I was pregnant at the time. So I was trying to transition and improve my life and actually COVID really cut that short. I was waiting for my case--that all stopped. So it has really kind of destroyed my progress.”
COVID effects on work life
Most of the participants were already working from home or could easily make the transition to work from home. A caveat—the TMUI participant pool assumes access to and basic knowledge of computers, which resulted in feedback from people who were more likely to be able to transition to working remotely. As a result, many participants in this study described positive and permanent work changes due to the pandemic.
“I work from home doing independent contractor work so that was going on before COVID. So there hasn't been any effect there.”
“I did work from home previously, so it hasn't changed my work life too much.”
“I do enjoy the work from home lifestyle. I was transitioning into that before the pandemic started. So all in all it's been a good transition in terms of work life balance.”
“It has been nice not having to go into the office, but I've also lost a lot of contact with some of my co-workers so that's been kind of hard.”
“So instead of driving every day, I get to save a lot of time from not staying in traffic, being at home.”
“I'm actually trying to find a job where I'm just strictly working from home because I have found that I do enjoy not having to get dressed up and go anywhere on a regular basis.”
“I’m more productive and more comfortable as well without having to do the commute.”
However, the switch to remote work was not entirely positive for one participant:
“When you work at an office, you're going to work and going back home, you can separate between the two. But now when you are working at home, it's kind of hard to do. And you just start working all the time because the job, it's just what's going on. The work life balance is getting blurred all over the place and yeah, I found myself working overtime unconsciously.”
This preference for remote work aligns with trends identified by Forbes Future of Work: What the Post-Pandemic Workplace Holds for Remote Workers’ Careers posted on May 2, 2021.
Some participants reported reduced work hours, pay cuts, or worse—losing their jobs:
“I was working at a restaurant for two years and they had to shut down for the pandemic.”
“I got hired in March 2020 and then at the end of May they fired me because of the COVID.”
“I had a reduction in hours. So financially that puts a little bit of a hardship on my family.”
“I was also a Uber Eats delivery driver and that was a big source of income and was completely put on halt.”
“I lost my job. I'm on unemployment and jobs out there are not really open yet. A lot of companies are suffering and it's gonna take a while to get back.”
Others described changing their work situation to help or protect themselves or their family:
“I was working in the healthcare facility but I could not work there anymore because of potential risk of infection of my grandmother and my grand uncle who are very high prone, they have a lot of diabetes, heart problems and breathing problems.”
“I dropped down to part time because my two youngest kids are doing virtual schooling . So I am working from home part time now rather than full time. And then half time trying to help them with their virtual learning.”
One resourceful participant tried something new—and made a profit:
“It actually has helped because I sew and sell handmade masks, so I'm able to make a profit off of this. I feel like that's a very beneficial thing for me, kind of a side hustle, so it actually has helped.”
Essential workers described choosing to stay on site for the greater good of the community:
“I had the ability to work remotely, but I chose to stay on site. I work at a hospital. I figured it was my responsibility to stay at work if I'm healthy...that I should definitely go ahead and do what I'm supposed to.”
“My dad had to work two times as much as the beginning of COVID because of all of the chaos. He's a police officer.”
Several students described the mixed effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on their school experiences:
“I'm a student, not able to go to school and interact with my teachers. My grades haven't really dropped that much, but it feels like I'm able to learn less and I really wish that I could go back to school.”
“I can do my classes and my work online, it's pretty accessible, not that hard. I believe a lot of people have a hard time with working online, but I think it's pretty accessible and easy.”
“Doing my classes on my laptop, it's been sadder. I guess because we don't have as much going out as we used to do before.”
“I've been doing online classes for the last year and doing some subjects online is not very easy.”
“When the pandemic started, I was attending college and then everything just switched online. That's kind of convenient for me since I'm a father.”
COVID effects on family life
The participants’ descriptions of how COVID-19 affected their family lives were nearly identical in mainly negative sentiment to COVID’s effect on their personal lives. Most people described missing family gatherings and celebrations of life events such as graduations, birthdays, and holidays.
“I didn't get to see my son graduate from high school. It was a big mess and ended up being a drive-through type thing.”
“I've missed out on a lot of different things with them--Christmas, birthday parties. Seeing my mom and dad, seeing other family members. It's been difficult, it's been hard.”
“We got a little bit more distant. Normally we get together to do things. We have large gatherings, 20 to 30 people or so, almost every major holiday and we were not able to do that last year.”
“We're still not having huge family gatherings.”
“We don’t do any big family reunions anymore.”
“It felt really isolating, not being able to go to gatherings.”
“I used to visit my grandma every week or so. Now I don't really visit her much.”
Some explained that they or relatives have been unable to travel to meet family in other states or countries:
“I haven't seen my immediate family in over a year and a half because of COVID.”
“I haven't seen my own family back in Italy and in England.”
“I wasn't able to visit my family there [India], they have been severely affected. Some are finding it very hard to live.”
“Part of my family is stuck abroad and couldn't meet. Hopefully pretty soon we will be reunited.”
“I am a single mother. If any one of my relatives wanted to come and visit to help me with my daughter from another country to see how I'm doing, the chances became slim to none.”
When describing the pandemic’s effects on their family life, mental health was a main theme, as it was in descriptions of the pandemic’s effects on personal lives:
“None of us have gotten it [COVID], but mental health-wise it's kind of taken a toll.”
“It really destroyed a lot of aspects of my life and not to mention it has caused a lot of depression, stress, and pessimism.”
“I think about death a lot more lately.”
“I get scared, overly worried, and then become depressed and stuff.”
“Communicating with people has been harder because you are so lazy and you can't really… you don't have the energy to talk or do things as you would do normally.
Many respondents explained that family members had COVID-19. Some survived and sadly, several did not:
“Luckily only my aunt and uncle had it, but they had a lighter version of it.”
“Both my parents got that. They're not as young, and hearing them and witnessing, observing how they are. It sucked.”
“My biological father got COVID, my brother got COVID, my father's wife got COVID. Just about a month ago, my stepfather got COVID.”
“I have a couple of extended family members who caught COVID, but they all survived and did not even require hospitalization.”
“My family got infected from COVID. We didn't have big issues, just mild symptoms. It went fast, thank God, like regular flu basically.”
“I did lose an aunt and an uncle from COVID and that was definitely sad for our whole family.”
“My grand aunt passed away because of COVID, one of my grandparents and then my grand uncle also passed away in India.”
Quarantining with family members for a year in close quarters caused tension for some participants:
“The apartment was just just too small. When you're kind of cooped up for so long and not allowed to go do a lot of traveling and stuff. It really stinks.”
“We have spent a ridiculous amount of time together.”
“Everyone is just feeling a little bit cooped up at home.”
“My family were all super agitated because we never spent so much time together before and it just showed that our personalities did not match. Two of my family members had to move out of the house. Honestly [it was] funny.”
Several people described enduring the stress of caregiving during the pandemic:
“I worry about my parents and try to stay on top of the house and try to take care of them--many of their needs, grocery store, and so on. There was all the pressure at home regarding that. It’s been hard for everyone.”
“We have a new addition to our family since the COVID-19 pandemic started. Dealing with that and being in the middle of a pandemic was really hard.
“I am a single mother but I do not have any family or relatives [in the US]. If any one of my relatives wanted to come and visit to help me with my daughter after COVID their chances became slim to none.”
Some reported tension among family members who don’t take precautions to prevent getting COVID-19:
“There’s a lot of tension between groups within our family. We're not exactly sure how to go on having parties with them, because we don't really want to see some of these people because we are not very happy with how they acted during the pandemic.”
“There's been some tension because my mother wants to do more stuff with her grandkids and with the family overall and I have to keep insisting ‘No, not until you have the vaccine.’”
In a few cases, people reported that the pandemic resulted in an improvement in their family lives. They learned to be resilient and their families are emerging stronger from the pandemic:
“It has actually helped us to be more united and help each other. The fact that we are together most of the time, we can now have more conversations and I am grateful.”
“We wanted to be near family so we moved and we're all together in this. So we have support of the family, overall it’s been okay because we've been together.”
“Our family has been good. We've been just trying to keep busy doing activities on our own-- outdoor activities, hiking, and things like that. For the most part, I think everybody's in a very good state of mind.”
“My family is the group of people that I have chosen to create a quarantine group with. So we've all been working hard to stay safe and maintain our mental health in a positive way.”
“We've really had a lot more time to spend together, which has been wonderful, especially when everyone was so busy. This has been a nice break the past year, being able to have that additional time with people, even if we get on each other's nerves once in a while!”
“It brought our family closer together because we understood that [as a] family we're here for each other and without us, where will we be?”
“Initially it was hard for everybody to stay in and keep motivated to do our work and stress-free. But now as it's almost a year, we are used to it and whatever the situation we improved ourselves or we dealt with it, or we changed our routine so that we can lead a happy and healthy life.”
“Overall we're happier. We've been able to save a lot of money not going out and not traveling as much. So I think that's benefited us a little bit.”
“I think we've become closer as a family because we feel very united and we feel very responsible and we want to do the right thing.”
Because we conducted this research in early April 2021 as COVID-19 vaccines were becoming available, people expressed hope after looking back at how the pandemic affected their personal, work, and family lives during the previous year:
“We are getting more and more people in my family vaccinated, which has been great.”
“Hopefully everybody gets this vaccine and we can get back to life.”
“We hope to get back out more now that things are kind of reopening.”
“I feel like things are slowly getting back to normal. We're still far away, but at least it feels a lot better than last year when the pandemic first hit.”
Series overview & methodology
This study is part of a larger year-over-year cross-sectional study series that combined task-based data from TryMyUI with survey data from SurveyMonkey to understand where people get news and information about COVID-19, the sources they trust, and attitudes and behaviors concerning the pandemic. TryMyUI generously donated the test credits we used to conduct the task-based sessions for this research effort.
April 2020 study
The April 2020 study took place from April 3 through April 16, 2020. This was soon after the start of the pandemic. It was a period during which COVID-19 dominated the news and many states had issued stringent restrictions. Study findings are based on responses from the 429 U.S. participants who completed our SurveyMonkey survey. This sample also included a subset of 30 people who also performed coronavirus-related tasks on the web via the remote usability testing tool TryMyUI.
April 2021 study
The April 2021 research took place between April 12 through April 17, 2021, approximately 1 year into the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of the 2021 study, the vaccine was widely available to people 18 and over and many states were loosening COVID-related restrictions. This study replicated and expanded on the 2020 study and included a larger U.S.-based SurveyMonkey sample of 951 participants. A subset of 42 of these people also participated in the task-based TryMyUI study, during which they were asked to navigate the web to find answers to key COVID-19 questions. These participants gave us a walkthrough of their top online news sources, found answers to questions about COVID (cases, vaccines, medicines, etc.), and located test or vaccination sites nearby.
Sessions were remote, automated (unmoderated), and recorded. Videos and transcripts from the sessions were analyzed to compile findings for this article. Quotes are verbatim with a few tweaks - we removed extraneous words (um, like, you know, etc.) and corrected spelling from quotes to improve clarity.
Detailed methodology & demographics
For more details about the methodology and participant demographics for 2020 and 2021 studies, see COVID-19 Retrospectives: A blog series about experience, news & trust in a pandemic.
Connect with the authors
You can connect with us via LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook: Marilyn Salzman, Bill Skeet, and Lori Eronimous. We'll be sure to announce new publications there or find these posts on our COVID-19 Research blog.