From the start of the pandemic, we have been regularly exposed to reports of the decline of peoples’ mental health during the multiple lockdowns aimed at fighting COVID-19, especially when it comes to children and young people unable to socialize and pursue their education by attending school.
Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that almost 41% of adults in the United States were struggling with mental health challenges and fallen prey to drug and alcohol abuse.
Women especially have faced significant mental health challenges arising from the pandemic and lockdowns. We have learned how employers need to pay special attention to those who are working from home because this has made it more difficult to recognize and deal with the warning signs of domestic abuse.
But we also have learned that physical and emotional abuse are not the only threats to women’s mental health, and the impact of isolation and the burdens of extra responsibilities at home appear to be driving many women out of the workforce, perhaps permanently, and this could limit the ability of businesses to recover fully from a devasted economy.
Women account for more than half of all jobs lost since the beginning of the pandemic. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported in February that about 2.4 million women have lost their jobs since last February 2020, which includes almost one million mothers who have left their jobs. By comparison, fewer than 1.8 million men have lost their jobs, according to BLS.
In January, the government reported that about 275,000 women left the workforce, compared with 71,000 men. In December, of the 227,000 jobs lost, women accounted for 196,000 of that total.
A major study conducted last year by the international consulting firm of McKinsey & Co. found that a disturbingly high number of women who have left the workforce don’t intend to return or will scale back their participation substantially.
Part of the problem is that responsibilities at home fall disproportionately on women, especially when it comes to caring for children and making sure they are getting educated. For example, 76% of mothers with children under age 10 say childcare is one of their top three challenges during COVID-19, compared to 54% of fathers with young children.
(Not surprisingly, given similar results found in pre-pandemic studies, 70% of married men think they are pitching in equally when it comes to duties at home, while only 44% of the mothers surveyed agree.)
“Among mothers who are thinking about downshifting or leaving, a majority cite childcare responsibilities as a primary reason,” McKinsey says. Among the working mothers polled:
- 17% said they planned to reduce their work hours,
- 16% intended to switch to a less demanding job,
- 15% wanted to take a leave of absence,
- 8% planned to move from a full-time role into a part-time role and
- 7% said they will be leaving the workforce entirely.
How Employers Can Help
Veteran employment attorney Amy Epstein Gluck of the FisherBroyles law firm observes, “The cost seems higher for women as they continue to bear the brunt of childcare and school, cleaning, planning, coordinating, shopping, and cooking, all while ‘managing’ full-time jobs.”
Epstein Gluck offers some timely advice on what employers can do to help their women employees who are struggling with these kinds of challenges. To begin with, employers may need to consider that the productivity of women working from home can be considered excellent in quality while still generating lower numbers than pre-pandemic levels.
“Often, employee management lags behind profit and productivity levels,” she notes. “Communicate with your employees often and authentically to determine if they have the time and resources to do the actual job you want them to do.”
Epstein Gluck stresses that managers should make a point of talking with their work teams about mental health issues. “I think authentic communication destigmatizes the whole idea of mental health as a ‘problem,’ reframes it as a workplace challenge, and presents an opportunity for creative and even innovative ways for people to work together.”
It is especially important to make a point of checking in with your employees, especially in our current reality where it is impossible to grab lunch or coffee together or just stop by someone’s office or cubicle. “We are all thirsty for human interaction,” she says.
Second, make sure to lead by example. There is nothing new about the fact that organizational leaders set the tone, and people tend to follow the leader, Epstein Gluck points out “If you, as a manager or supervisor, prioritize mental health, your employees are more likely to do so as well.”
Third, consider insisting on better mental health benefits from your insurers and, if possible, outreach, coaching and fostering support through peer-to-peer connections and Employee Assistance Programs. Some companies have increased their employees’ access to mental health resources, such as free counseling sessions, financial counseling and mobile apps that teach stress-management techniques.
The McKinsey report cites the fact that while almost all companies offer mental health counseling, only about half of employees know this benefit is available. It says the same trend holds true for other valuable programs such as parenting resources, health checks and bereavement counseling.
Fourth, consider paid or unpaid sick and/or family leave whether or not your state requires it.
Use whatever works, she says. It doesn’t have to be expensive, and “there’s no need to sacrifice work quality or profits.”
On the legal side, Epstein Gluck urges employers to keep in mind the requirements imposed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These include:
- Determine whether or not an employee requires an accommodation. “Actually talk to the employee about this,” she says. “We call this ‘engaging in an interactive discussion.’”
- Obtain from your employee or his or her doctor an understanding about how the disability affects the employee’s ability to do the job.
- Then provide the accommodation. The Job Accommodation Network offers an extensive list of accommodations for employees who suffer with mental health disorders, including flexible scheduling, additional time to learn new tasks, time off for counseling, frequent breaks and backup coverage.
- If you cannot offer an accommodation because it would impose an undue burden, make sure to document thoroughly how that was determined.
- Above all, she recommends that managers keep in mind at all times that employees are struggling to maintain their mental well-being while rising to meet the challenges of unique and uncharted new working conditions. It’s not unusual for women employees to find themselves worrying that their next conversation with their bosses about not being able to find childcare will result in termination.
Be especially mindful of this fact when female employees find themselves falling short of expectations because they are overwhelmed by COVID-19 era challenges, Epstein Gluck urges. “Maybe firing is fair, and maybe it’s just the pandemic and that your employees who are parents are relentlessly overwhelmed and exhausted, constantly working at an unsustainable pace.”