Working women have always been stretched thin, but the past two years of the pandemic have further underscored women’s need for more well-being support in the workplace. With the women’s labor-force participation rate at its lowest level in decades, employers must take action or risk continuing to lose critical female talent. In this week’s blog, we offer suggestions for how employers can support women where they need it most.
The challenges of the pandemic linger for women.
The early days of the pandemic were notoriously difficult for working women. Many juggled jobs with homeschooling children and caring for elderly relatives, while also absorbing a disproportionate share of household chores. Then, less than a year into the pandemic, we heard about burnout among women, which wasn’t surprising.
Now, while much of the country has returned to pre-pandemic life, women still feel the effects. A Women in the Workplace study conducted by McKinsey found that “women are even more burned out now than they were a year ago, and burnout is escalating much faster among women than among men.” In fact, a staggering 42% of women reported that they were often or almost always burned out in 2021, compared to 32% the previous year. And in our own study, 56% of women said they sometimes or always feel lonely or isolated, compared to 44% of men.
Women experiencing burnout report feeling anxious and depressed, having trouble sleeping and concentrating, feeling like they can’t make decisions or plan for the future, or maintaining healthy eating habits. They’re also more likely to put others’ needs ahead of their own self-care. This is important, considering that women and men differ greatly on the importance of emotional well-being. According to our study during the pandemic, women value emotional health as the top area of well-being.
Layered onto an already burned-out female workforce is the ongoing childcare shortage.
A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that a daycare worker shortage has left nearly half a million families without childcare. The article further notes that as parents struggle to find care for their children, the responsibility of staying home more often falls on the mother. And according to a study we recently conducted, caregivers report higher feelings of loneliness compared to non-caregivers (54% vs. 48%).
And so it’s no wonder that women feel their only options are to reduce hours, change jobs, or quit altogether. Data from the McKinsey study backs this up:
- One in three women says they have considered downshifting their career or leaving the workforce this year, compared with one in four who said this a few months into the pandemic.
- Four in ten women have considered leaving their company or switching jobs.
The risks of not supporting women in the workplace.
Aside from the cost to fill roles that women have left, which can be anywhere from 20 to 200% of their salary, an exodus of women from the workplace will likely have a severe impact on business health because:
- People of different genders naturally bring a diversity of opinions and perspectives to the organization, leading to greater creativity and innovation.
- Research has shown that gender-diverse teams have higher sales and profits compared to male-dominated teams.
- Women possess essential leadership capabilities, like collaboration, problem-solving, communication, critical thinking, and the ability to network.
- A higher percentage of women in the workplace has been correlated with increased job satisfaction, a positive organizational culture, more meaningful work, and less burnout.1
- When women leave, the organization loses critical institutional knowledge.
How can employers help women in the workplace?
There’s certainly no easy fix to the challenges that working women face. But, a combination of support for women’s health and wellness and a reexamination of corporate policies can help. Here are some ideas to consider.
Greater flexibility and time off.
The standard nine-to-five, 40-hour workweek made sense when only one person in a household was working. But, now that nearly 77% of women participate in the workforce, it’s clear that they need more flexibility in when, where, and how they work. Some workplace policies to consider adding include:
- Alternative schedules that allow a later start or early departure to better align with the school day.
- Hybrid or remote work. One note of caution: as women may be more inclined to take advantage of remote work, it’s critical to ensure that they are treated the same as in-office workers regarding promotions, work assignments, compensation, and exposure to senior leaders.
- Four-day workweeks. Some organizations have recently piloted experiments with this way of working, so it’s a great time to test and see if it works for your company as well.
- Job-sharing roles that split the workweek between two people.
- Unlimited time off. It seems radical, but many companies are adopting this approach as a retention strategy. A recent Mercer survey found that 20% of the 405 responding organizations offered unlimited PTO to at least some employees in 2021, up significantly from 14% of respondents in both 2015 and 2018. If you choose to provide this benefit, make sure it’s treated in a way that encourages people to actually use it. For example, set a minimum requirement that people must take per year—say, 20 days a year minimum, for example.
- Allow time for well-being activities during the workday. Don’t force employees to squeeze stress-reduction activities into their already limited free time. Increase engagement by allowing 30 minutes or more each day to do something of their choice, such as exercising, meditating, reading a book or calling a friend. It’s a great way for employees to take a mandated break.
More women’s mental health resources.
Both men and women experience mental health issues. But, the complex nature of women’s roles as mothers and caregivers, persistent gender stereotypes, and a biological predisposition to certain mental health conditions make it imperative that women receive additional mental health support in the workplace.2 So, in addition to the cultural work of reducing the stigma around mental health, companies should offer support through:
- Free Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counseling sessions, including telehealth visits.
- Access to mindfulness/meditation tools.
- Mental health days or even a mental health hour during the workday.
- Stress reduction and resilience tools.
Generous caregiving leave policies.
The U.S. is the only industrialized country that does not have a mandatory, federal paid parental leave program. While some states do mandate it, and federal government employees are entitled to 12 weeks of leave, it’s generally up to private employers to provide this kind of benefit for new moms and dads. Offering paid time off for both parents to bond with a child during that all-important first year can lead to greater retention of women, a more equal distribution of childcare in the family, and better mental health for both parents.
Leave policies are also necessary for those caring for older relatives, which—more often than not—are women. A Caregiving in the U.S. 2020 report by the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) and the AARP Public Policy Institute found that the majority of caregivers (61%) are still female. So, time off to attend doctor appointments, provide care after a relative’s medical procedure, or even flexibility in their schedule to check in on older family members can help.
Return-to-work support for new mothers.
Supporting new mothers as they return to work is critical to their well-being. According to Employee Benefit News, 50% of new moms who return to work will seek a new job offering more family-friendly benefits, often at lower pay, if they don’t feel supported.
Some helpful programs to consider adding include:
- Phased re-entry to work—staging a return to work with an increasing number of days worked each week can offer a sleep-deprived new mom a more gentle reintroduction and increase retention.
- Breastfeeding support—dedicated spaces where breastfeeding moms can pump, and milk shipping services that allow breastfeeding women to ship milk back home when they must travel for work. Women must also feel comfortable and supported taking time away from their job to pump breast milk.
- Maternal health programs—education is typically focused on the gestational part of pregnancy, but the post-partum experience is important, too, especially for warding off common conditions like post-partum depression. Check with your health plan or EAP vendors to see if they offer special support for post-partum women.
Also, remember to take an honest look at your company culture. Company culture should value caregiving as an important part of life—not something that needs to be “balanced” with work. Ensure your culture supports the actual taking of leave, especially for moms.
Childcare/elder care support.
A study we recently conducted showed that men and women reported being caregivers at nearly identical rates: 44% for women and 43% for men. However, additional results show the burden is often much heavier for women. Even before the current childcare shortage, finding quality, reliable daycare for children was a challenge—not to mention a huge expense for parents. Employers can make it easier by providing:
- Onsite childcare
- Childcare subsidies
- Back-up care for the times when regular childcare falls through, or a child is unwell and not able to attend daycare or school
- Help locating elder care or daycare centers through an EAP
One interesting idea is to tailor childcare benefits for different employee segments, such as parents with children younger than 5, parents with school-age children, or people caring for elderly and chronically ill persons.
Help with finances.
A study we conducted in late 2019 found that women are more stressed about finances than men. In particular:
- Over 40% of women feel dissatisfied with their financial wellness versus 31% of men.
- 53% of women are concerned with paying off debt like student loans and credit cards versus 37% of men.
- 45% of women versus 31% of men say their caregiving status has a negative impact on their financial wellness.
Whether it’s due to the pay gap, taking time off for childbearing or childcare, or because they’ve opted out of the workforce to care for aging parents or older spouses, women need financial wellness support. Access to basic financial skills and education, such as budgeting, establishing an emergency fund, and paying off debt can help. In addition, subsidized childcare and more parental leave can prevent women from leaving the workforce and suffering further financial setbacks.
Active and visible leadership support is a huge factor in reducing stress on the job for women. Unless leaders themselves model flexible work practices, talk about their own well-being practices and how they take care of their mental health, and set boundaries for work and life, women will not feel they have permission to do so in their own lives.2
A community for women in the workplace.
Workplace Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) focus on the needs of specific segments of the employee population. If you don’t already have an ERG for women in your company, consider starting one as a way for women to find a supportive community and to advocate for better policies and benefits. Also, consider mentor programs that pair women with more senior female leaders as well as groups on workplace social media and Slack channels where women can connect.
Reproductive healthcare support.
Increasingly, women want to work for companies that will support them with family building, including fertility assistance, and adoption and surrogacy reimbursement. This is particularly important to the largest sector of the workforce, millennials, who are now in their childbearing years, as well as those in same-sex relationships. They are also looking for medical plans that support women’s reproductive health, including coverage for pregnancy, childbirth, and post-partum care without the high deductibles, co-pays, or out-of-pocket costs that some health plans feature. And, with the constitutional right to obtain an abortion eliminated, employers may look to add benefits to reimburse women who must travel out-of-state to receive care.
In summary, today’s women want to work for employers who acknowledge their unique female workplace issues and, in turn, offer flexibility, supportive leave benefits, assistance with childbearing and caregiving, financial wellness programs tailored to women, and mental health benefits. The bottom line is that when women feel supported, they’ll be more likely to stay with the organization and be positive ambassadors that attract future generations of women to your workforce.