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Working women are struggling: 4 ways HR leaders can help

Julia Lamm
Julia Lamm, Workforce and Strategy Partner, PwC, focuses on workforce planning, talent acquisition, talent development and employee experience.

It’s 7:30 a.m. in New York. Time to get my sons, 3-year-old Asher and 5-year-old Lincoln, ready for the day. It also happens to be the time when my team scheduled an important video conference. Twelve hours of back-to-back calls and client meetings later, I’m giving the boys their bath when my phone pings: My colleague just scheduled an urgent call. As I dial in, I pause to check the school district’s daily COVID-19 update, feeling the familiar mix of anxiety and dread. I’m not only worried about the dangers of the virus but also that an outbreak at my son’s school could throw my family’s carefully balanced life into disarray.

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This scenario is likely familiar to many working parents out there, especially to mothers–and especially now. Employees across all demographics report feeling more stress during the pandemic, but women, in particular, are feeling the strain: Our recent Workforce Pulse survey found that female employees aged 35-44 are struggling much more than other groups of employees. The majority (75%) say they’re stressed and anxious, and 69% say they’re struggling to balance work with personal demands.

This group of employees includes more than working mothers; it includes many women who are at critical points in their careers and personal lives. Studies show that women are bearing a disproportionate burden during the pandemic. At work, it’s taking a toll on productivity and mental health.

Related: How well are HR’s strategies helping mental health?

Many employers, including my own, have rolled out new benefits and resources to help their workforce during the pandemic. But some organizations may not be aware of just how much this group is struggling and that there’s an opportunity to do more.

An unsustainable situation

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I consider myself extremely lucky to have the privilege of working from home for a firm that offers great flexibility and to have strong support in my personal life. But it’s alarming how many women are not getting the support they need. Many are choosing to step away from their careers. Among the almost 20% of working-age Americans who are not working because of childcare demands during the pandemic, women are almost three times as likely as men to have dropped out of the workforce.

Meanwhile, some women who have managed to hold on to their jobs are struggling to stay focused and productive–and finding it hard to ask for help. More than a third of 35- to 44-year-old women in our survey say their productivity is being adversely affected by an unmanageable workload (36%), lack of flexibility in the workplace (36%), and the inability to ask for help to manage the stress (33%). That’s significantly higher than other groups of respondents. For instance, only 20% of all respondents said a lack of flexibility affects their productivity, and only 23% said the same about unmanageable workloads.

It’s wonderful to see so many companies offering new options for employees to help with the strain of the pandemic. But extra childcare doesn’t always help when families are operating within coronavirus bubbles and don’t feel comfortable dropping their child off somewhere new. Extra mental health benefits are unlikely to be used by those running on five hours of sleep every night without the time to prioritize their own wellbeing.

So what would keep women healthy, productive and ready to remain on the job? These four ideas might help.

Unusual times call for new options

  1. Formal flexible work arrangements: Employees need flexibility now more than ever– the ability to work a full day, but vary their working hours. A formalized flexible work arrangement takes that idea a step further, allowing employees to reduce their hours or compress their workweeks (from five days to four, for example).
  2. Job sharing: For parents who work at the same company, this special kind of part-time option may be appealing. A job share is when two or more employees share the duties of a single, full-time position. It gives employees more flexibility to care for family members and tend to other personal responsibilities, while employers may benefit from increased collaboration and productivity.
  3. Personalized benefits: Consider offering a range of benefits that meet women where they’re at in their lives. For example, those who are considering having children but are under stress or feel this isn’t the right time may appreciate fertility benefits. And parents with school-aged children who are learning remotely may appreciate remote tutoring benefits.
  4. Adopt and model inclusive behaviors: Recent events, from the pandemic to social unrest and a divisive election, have made businesses more aware of the need to nurture traits like empathy and humility in organizational culture. “Lean In” circles for women can be incredibly supportive. Help people look beyond their own situation to recognize the unique challenges others may have. For example, the hours before school starts or around bedtime may be difficult for parents, so avoid scheduling calls or meetings during that time so they can be included.

It’s important to design these policies so that people can still receive benefits and stay on the promotion track even in part-time or shared roles.

The pandemic hasn’t been easy on anyone. But there are ways to make it easier to manage–including for the many women in your workforce who are struggling right now.

Related: Join us at our Health & Benefits Leadership Conference to learn more about how HR leaders are managing COVID. Register here.