The COVID-19 pandemic created seismic shifts in corporate America and workplace environments. The transition from working in the office to working remotely from home has dramatically blurred the boundaries between work and personal life, making many employees feel like they’re “always on.” Zoom fatigue is a real problem, and even before the pandemic, the World Health Organization added burnout to their International Classification of Diseases.
The pandemic may have leveled the playing field for both men and women on a personal level. While women traditionally fulfilled the household duties of helping their kids with homework and cooking dinner, men stepped up slightly more to take on some domestic responsibilities.
Despite any cultural shift, however, women disproportionately handled new domestic responsibilities during the pandemic. The added stressors of pandemic family life have inevitably impacted women in the workplace who are trying to simultaneously balance their professional lives.
At the heart of this issue is the fact that the shift from office to remote work has been difficult for so many women, according to the 2020 Women in the Workplace Study (McKinsey & Company). Women are concerned about productivity perceptions. For example, they’re worried they’ll be judged more harshly than men if associates hear their children playing in the background. A deeper dive into the statistics reveals that 13% of mothers report feeling uncomfortable even discussing the fact that they’re parents, which is 2.6 times more than their male counterparts. Nearly 1 in 4 mothers fear that their work performance will be assessed negatively due to their caregiving responsibilities (2 times more than men), and 29% feel tentative to talk about their work-life challenges (1.5 times more than men).
Meanwhile, against this backdrop of professional worries, pandemic pressures are creating real disruptions in their family life. The combination of these factors has led to burnout and mental health concerns. The numbers are staggering: 1 in 4 women are contemplating downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely. Among senior-level women, 3 in 4 cite burnout as the primary reason.
The statistics paint a picture of a looming crisis in corporate America. Corporations are at risk of losing women in leadership roles, as well as women who had a promising future as executives.
However, history has taught us that crisis presents the opportunity for substantial change. Corporations can start encouraging more empathy and flexibility in the workplace to both attract and retain women leaders. A culture of open communication and mentorship can create an environment where women — supported by their male counterparts — have equal opportunity to reach their full potential while balancing professional and family responsibilities.
It all starts with mentoring both women and men in the organization, encouraging empathy and honest discussion, and rethinking the meaning of productivity.
Creating a Culture of Connection and Empathy
With the shift to remote work, professional mentoring has become challenging. Intuitive levels of connection, including eye contact and body language, can be easily lost when associates aren’t physically together and interacting. However, corporations can still offer meaningful mentorship programs sans in-person meetings. By practicing mindfulness and being completely present during Zoom meetings and phone calls, executives can still achieve fulfilling relationships with colleagues. Virtual mentoring can help ensure all employees feel valued and supported, which can ultimately aid in upward career mobility.
For men in leadership positions, a good place to start is by recognizing women’s contributions to the workplace environment and validating the unique challenges they face. Even prior to the pandemic, research showed that senior-level women worked nearly an hour longer than their male counterparts when both paid and unpaid tasks were taken into account. A 2018 study revealed that women were more vulnerable to burnout than men because they have less authority in their jobs, which can lead to increased frustration and stress, as well as diminished well-being.
Women who come forward with a story about a personal or professional struggle shouldn’t be perceived as weak or less productive. Their honesty should be commended because their stories can help women throughout the ranks of the organization, which can improve the overall culture of the company.
To better support employees, especially women, companies can:
- Coordinate employee mentorship programs and encourage personal connection
- Encourage women in leadership to mentor other women in the organization
- Encourage women to coordinate “neighborhood pods” for child and family support
- Expand mental health counseling
- Offer more benefits, including paid leave, emergency loans, and stipends to pay for home office supplies
- Encourage employees to send more empathetic and meaningful emails and messages, i.e., “What can I do to support you during this time?”
Creating new mentorship programs can be challenging for companies in the current work environment, but the rewards can be significant for those who find a way. By truly understanding and addressing the underlying causes of employee burnout, corporations can retain more executives, both men, and women, while reducing stress and burnout within their ranks.
A Brighter Future
Corporate America is at a crossroads of gender diversity in the workplace. The 2020 Women in the Workplace Study concluded that without bold steps, corporate America could erase all the progress made toward gender diversity in the 6 years of the study. There is a silver lining, however. For many companies, the pandemic revealed that structural change is possible, especially when it comes to adapting to remote work environments. It’s time to apply those lessons to broader cultural changes that can benefit gender diversity.
By changing company policies and practices to embrace more flexibility, encouraging virtual mentoring, adjusting the perception of productivity, and identifying and addressing the root causes of burnout, corporations can create a more harmonious work environment and attract/retain their current and future women leaders.
At Executives Unlimited, we help companies make sense of COVID’s disruptions and better understand how they affect the executive search process.