Study: Pandemic taking greater toll on women in the workforce

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a source of great anxiety for many, if not most, employees. According to one recent study commissioned by the American Psychological Association, stress levels in the U.S. have increased significantly in recent monthsOther research suggests that stress levels may be particularly elevated for female employees.

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Even before the pandemic, delivering on the employee experience was cited as a top priority for HR in 2020, according to input from more than 7,300 C-suite executives, HR leaders and employees in more than 30 countries who responded to Mercer’s 2020 Global Talent Trends report. While nearly half of executives (48%) rank employee wellbeing as their top workforce concern, only 29% of HR leaders have a health and wellbeing strategy in place— with two-thirds of employees globally feeling at risk for burnout in 2020. This can only be exacerbated by having to balance work duties with social distancing, remote working, closures and quarantine.

Related: Strategies for managing remote work and Survey Monkey found that working women, in comparison to their male counterpartsare experiencing notably higher levels of physical anxiety, sleeplessness and work-life conflict due in large part to the extra burden of balancing work, parenting, caregiving and housework during the pandemic. 

To learn more about the work-related challenges and stressors that women and men have been experiencing during the pandemic, Mercer recently collaborated with Crunchr and surveyed 485 employees, including 197 men and 288 women, working in a cross-section of organizations and industries around the world. Using a brief set of Q-sort and Likert-scaled items, along with an open-ended question, employees were asked to identify their current concerns, evaluate the level of support they are receiving at work and identify ways their organizations could support employees during the pandemicFour main findings emerged.   

  1. Employees are worried about their families and the economy. When asked to rank order their current concerns, both men and women indicated that they are most concerned about the safety of their family and the economic impact of the pandemic. As one respondent said“Many [people] are worried about job security, pay cuts, [and the] future of the company during and after the pandemic.€
  2. Women are particularly concerned about their workload, their work-life balance and the impact of COVID-19 on society. Consistent with research from and SHRMthe survey found that female respondents ”in comparison to male respondents” were significantly more concerned about managing their workload and maintaining their work-life balance. As one female respondent said, there should be more focus on wellbeing and the actual realities of being expected to deliver 110% effort in the context of a pandemic. There needs to be some acknowledgment that working full-time in a stressful job during a pandemic is not easy and that everyone is experiencing significant stress (regardless of whether they have children or not) in their personal life.€ Female respondents were also significantly more concerned about the impact that COVID-19 is having on society. This finding is in line with a growing body of research suggesting that altruismcompassion, and ethics may vary by gender.
  3. Men are worried about their careers and their jobs. In many countries and culturesmen have been expected to play the role of financial provider for generations. Despite recent changes in workplace demographics, gender roles, gender relations and societal norms, public polls indicate that many people still expect men to serve as the primary breadwinner for the family. For example, 2017 study by the Pew Research Center found that 71% of respondents felt that for a man to be considered a good husband or father, he must be able to financially support his family. This same study found that men earn more than women in about two-thirds of married or co-habitating couples. These cultural expectationand economic realities may explain why the survey found that male respondents, in comparison to female respondents, were significantly more concerned about their future careers and their job securityWhen asked what organizations could do to help employees manage the current pandemic, one male respondent said he would like to see “financial commitments from the company (even if for short periods) to confirm their job security.
  4. Women feel less supported by management and leadership. Using a set of 14 questions, the survey asked employees to evaluate various aspects of their work experience during the pandemic (see Table 1 for results). Across most items, results for male and female respondents were similar. But on three items, women were notably less favorable than men were.These results suggest that in some organizations, female employees may feel overlooked, unheard and uninvolved. As one respondent commented, “I don’t think the lines of communication have been good. It would be better to know about things that are in process to see if workers feel they are acceptable.”

For leaders, managers and HR professionals, these findings raise three critical questions.   

    • Do you know what your employees are worrying about? Recent events including everything from the pandemic and the economy to George Floyd’s death and worldwide protests for justice” are putting many people on edge. If you have not asked your employees about their personal, professional and societal concerns, you are missing out on critical information.
    • Are you providing your workforce with the care, support and resources they need? Many employees, particularly women and parentsare struggling to balance their work and personal responsibilities these days. Finding ways to support your workforce during this uniquely trying time can help your employees stay healthy and effective. In our survey, flexible hours, recalibrated performance goals, mental health care services, clear communication and empathetic leadership were identified as important sources of support.
  • How will you help your employees through thnext phase of this pandemic? Some organizations are making plans to bring their remote workforce back to the office. Others are considering a virtual future for their organization. Whatever your plans, your employees want to understand what’s next. The more you share information, solicit feedback and involve employees in critical decisions, the more empowered and engaged your workforce will be.
Patrick Hyland and Varavit Chinnapong
Patrick Hyland is Director of Research and Development at Mercer | Sirota and Varavit Chinnapong is a Mercer Talent Strategy Consultant.