The Pandemic’s Burden on Working Mothers

Throughout the pandemic, working parents have had to juggle work responsibilities with their children’s care and education. According to Boston Consulting Group’s COVID-19 Caregivers Survey, 60% of working parents have had no outside help in caring for and educating their children during the pandemic. Parents spend an additional 27 hours a week on household chores, child care, and education. The American Psychological Association indicates that two out of three working parents report significantly higher stress levels than were present before the pandemic.

While nearly all working parents have had an increased role in their children’s care and education during the pandemic, the burden tends to fall most heavily on working mothers. A variety of studies point out that women are much more likely than men to hold primary responsibility for cooking, cleaning, childcare, and education. According to the Women in the Workplace study conducted by McKinsey & Company, mothers are one-half times more likely than fathers to spend an additional three or more hours per day on housework and childcare. The study also reveals that one out of three mothers has considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers because of COVID-19. And, in September of 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that more than four times the number of women than men had dropped out of the workforce that month. With a staggering number of women leaving the workforce and many more considering doing the same, experts are concerned that it could negate much of the progress that has been made in gender equity in the workplace in recent years.

In addition to impacting their ability to stay employed, the burden on working mothers also affects their mental health and wellbeing. In a study by the American Enterprise Institute, mothers were more likely to say they felt depressed, had no time for themselves, and had felt stressed, frustrated, or overwhelmed than fathers. Forty-nine percent of mothers reported feeling isolated during the pandemic, compared to 36% of fathers and 35% of nonparents who reported feelings of isolation.

As Joan Williams, a law professor at the University of California – Hastings, said, “There’s no wishing this pandemic away. If employers don’t come to terms with this, we will come out [of it] a workforce bleached of mothers.”  And, as stated in Women in the Workplace 2020 by McKinsey & Company, “In a year marked by crisis and uncertainty, companies are at a crossroads. The choices companies make today will have consequences on gender equality for decades to come.”  Following are some suggestions to help organizational leaders support working mothers during this challenging time so that they are more likely to remain contributing and productive members of the organization and the American workforce.

  • With the assumption that many employees are working remotely, focus on deliverables and outcomes, rather than the number of hours and the timing of hours worked. Many working parents cannot sit in front of a computer Monday through Friday from 8 to 5 during the pandemic. When possible, provide flexibility around when, where, and how the work gets accomplished.
  • Provide flexibility in working hours and the ability to shuffle meetings and other commitments around. Create a safe space for parents to express their needs and challenges as they navigate this balancing act.
  • Reduce the number of meetings. When meetings are necessary, reduce the length. When possible, record meetings or have an attendee send out a summary so that employees can catch-up when it works best for them.
  • Emphasize work/life balance. For example, train leaders to not require immediate responses to non-urgent e-mails and send messages outside of regular working hours only when absolutely necessary.
  • Celebrate the efforts of working moms during this unprecedented time. Recognize them for all that they are doing at work and their responsibilities at home. Understand that they may have more distractions than employees without parenting responsibilities during the pandemic.
  • Highlight the benefit offerings you already have in place. If you provide mental health benefits or an Employee Assistance Program, remind employees how to avail themselves. Encourage and allow employees to take time away from work, including vacation time, PTO, and/or leaves of absence, to unplug and recharge.
  • Consider new and different benefit offerings. Some organizations have temporarily made benefits available to part-time employees, have begun to offer child care support benefits, or have added (paid) leave options. Explore these and other possibilities.
  • Offer employees the opportunity to (temporarily) shift to part-time work and/or job sharing, thereby helping women remain at work. Employees who can work part-time rather than stop working altogether are more likely to stay connected to the organization, industry, and work itself. As Verizon’s Chief HR Executive, Christy Pambianchi, says, “Companies need a way to keep people tethered. You can’t let all that talent walk out the door.”

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