Even before the raging second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic hit us head-on, it was evident that the impact of the crisis has been much more severe on women. The extent of the damage is now expected to multiply several folds in light of the large-scale destruction to lives and livelihoods caused by the exponential spike in the health crisis in India. There is, therefore, a dire need for organisations and employers to prioritise providing support to female employees, and in particular, working mothers.
While the pandemic has been hard on everyone, data indicates working mothers have been disproportionately affected, given the increase in family and childcare responsibilities, loss of economic security, high levels of physical burnout and mental fatigue. But this time around, they also have to cope with higher levels of anxiety, fear and grief while managing the growing mental stress on their children as well as impacted colleagues and team members.
A significant fallout from the increasing emotional distress includes declining productivity levels and several women are now contemplating quitting or taking temporary breaks. Therefore, if employers do not take proactive measures to prioritise supporting their female employees, it will compromise organisations’ pipeline of potential women leaders and pose a set back to their commitments to gender parity in leadership.
Following are a few suggestions for steps that organisations could take immediately, drawn from in-depth interviews and survey of more than 350 corporate leaders and professionals conducted as part of an extensive research study by Shenomics.
Help ease mothers’ “Mental Load”
Research shows that when household responsibilities are not divided equally at home, women get disproportionately drained with the “invisible or cognitive mental load” of planning and managing everyday tasks. Mothers are getting bogged down with constantly organizing, scheduling and prioritising the requirements of all family members, juggling support systems, planning meals, signing up kids for activity classes, etc. To help ease this burden, organisations could do some of the following–
- Redefine flexible working - while, in the past year, most organisations have given their employees the freedom and flexibility to work on convenient schedules to enable them to simultaneously tend to the household and childcare duties, there is now a need to go even beyond flexible hours. At least in the short term, employers must consider reducing daily working hours or compressing the work week; offering more paid leave for the sick, caregiving or grieving workers; and normalising a “turn-off” time for people so they get adequate rest and recover emotionally.
- Provide caregiving support - With many creche and day-care options being unavailable, employers can still continue to support the childcare and caregiving needs of employees by paying for or subsidizing virtual or in-person services of tutors, babysitters and activity classes. They can also provide employees with guidance and resources for medical support as well as access to psycho-social services to help them and their families cope with the mental and emotional impact of this health crisis.
- Provide programs and services that support resilience - Employers can provide programs that support women in building resilience during this and any future crisis. For instance, supporting women in becoming more assertive so they can ask for the necessary support they need at this time, actively negotiate for what they deserve, and learn to say no – both at home and in the workplace. Similarly, helping women build self-awareness of their strengths, values and priorities can help them in utilising their time and energy more efficiently, creating boundaries, and delegating where necessary.
Provide Psychological Safety
At a time when productivity levels are tough to maintain and the environment is marred by high levels of insecurity about jobs and careers, organisations can provide the needed respite by creating a psychologically safe culture where it is ok for people to take necessary breaks, invest in self-care and concentrate on personal exigencies as needed. The following actions can help create a conducive environment -
- Encourage a collaborative spirit - Organisations can proactively designate people who can be reached for mental and emotional support as well as share a list of leaders who are open to supporting and mentoring others at this time, to enable employees to reach out without hesitation. They could even consider introducing job sharing between caregivers and employees with more bandwidth, as well as normalise practices like recording online meetings or taking notes for the benefit of those who cannot attend.
- Define realistic productivity and performance expectations – In the short run, employers can consider resetting or narrowing down goals and targets as well as clearly communicating to employees that their performance will be measured on results and not the number of hours worked.
- Be mindful of the unique needs of women – creating an environment that allows women to bring their whole self to work and show up more authentically makes them feel more supported to speak up and ask for what they need. Over the medium to long-term, psychological safety supports organisations in accelerating the careers of high-potential women who may not be as visible or vocal at the moment but with the right support can go on to make a significant contribution.
Build a foundation for Compassionate Leadership
At a juncture when everyone is under severe stress and feeling overwhelmed, the top leadership in organisations can help everyone build emotional resilience by not just empathising with colleagues but compassionately helping them to alleviate their distress. A few measures that could support that include:
- Leaders should role-model vulnerability - Senior leaders can add value by not only engaging in frequent dialogue and check-ins with their teams but also by being transparent and vulnerable in sharing their own stories of coping with the current crisis and all the associated challenges. Vulnerability from leaders can pave the way for normalizing feelings of anguish, struggle and grief that many are experiencing at this time.
- Engage women leaders in crisis management – Our conversations with corporate leaders through 2020 showed that women have been particularly skilled at supporting resilience within their teams during the current crisis. They have kept their teams in high spirits with a "We are in it together" attitude. Therefore, the more women leaders are actively involved in crisis management and decision making, the greater the ripple effect will be of positive morale for the rest of the organization.
Support from their employers can go a long way in helping women create the necessary work-life balance for themselves, especially at a time such as this. In fact, more than thirty percent women surveyed by Shenomics noted that they would like organisations to understand their needs as a whole person. Therefore, in times of unprecedented crises such as this one, taking necessary actions to support working mothers can help organizations ensure that women go on to thrive and contribute at the highest levels.