Four ways to support working mothers' mental health during the pandemic

Women are leaving the workforce at record rates during the pandemic. How can employers take action and help?

Big Health 02.15.2021

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How is the pandemic going for working mothers? Not well.

In September alone, 865,000 women left the workforce—four times more than men. Nearly 5,000,000 women have stopped working since last March. It’s an unprecedented exodus, rooted in age-old gender inequalities magnified by COVID-era demands that make the concept of work-life balance seem like a fairy tale. 

While this exodus is complicated, the evaporation of childcare as a result of the pandemic has disproportionately impacted women. According to the United States Census Bureau, women ages 25 to 44 are almost three times as likely as men to stop working due to childcare demands.

The "pressure cooker" environment 

Take Sarah, who reached her breaking point six months into the pandemic. Initially, she’d felt fortunate that her public relations job could be done remotely, but the situation proved unsustainable. Her spouse was an essential worker, and Sarah was the only one home to help the couple’s first grader during a long day of virtual learning and keep their three-year-old from bouncing off the walls—all while trying to make it on time to back-to-back Zoom calls, focus on writing projects, cook dinner and keep toilet paper stocked. Whizzing around like a pinball, Sarah felt she was failing both her employer and her family. Everything was suffering, including her mental health. 

As Dr. Jenna Carl, Big Health’s vice president of clinical development and medical affairs, notes in this Benefits Pro commentary: when working from home feels more like living at work, it creates “a pressure cooker environment, exacerbating women’s psychology of ‘I’m not doing a good enough job at anything.’”

Women leaving the workforce is a mental health problem

Like so many others, Sarah eventually quit her job, hoping it would be easier to deal with financial strain than the "pressure cooker" and its accompanying exhaustion, overwhelm, and poor mental health. As Dr. Carl explains, however, quitting might actually make things worse for women’s mental health in the long run. 

“Unfortunately, leaving the workforce is likely to hurt rather than help women’s mental health, as having meaningful work is a key source of fulfillment, wellbeing and self-worth—protective for mental health. As the National Alliance on Mental Illness has reported: "Work is at the very core of contemporary life for most people, providing financial security, personal identity, and an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to community life,” explained Dr. Carl.

Supporting mothers in ways that make working through the pandemic possible is a win-win—the woman’s overall mental health improves and the company retains a valued employee. The good news is that there are many things employers can do to help struggling mothers, and many companies are taking action.

Four ways employers can support women's mental health 

  1. Take a hard look at the gender pay gap, and rectify it

    While it is decades past time for employers to pay women an equal wage, the pandemic has laid bare just how devastating getting paid nearly 20 percent less can be. For most households women are the secondary earners, in addition to being the primary caregiver and household worker. Dr. Carl explained that “even in this 'enlightened’ era, married mothers do almost double the amount of household work and parenting as married fathers.” During the COVID crisis, a smaller income combined with inequity in expanded family responsibilities make it “easier” for working mothers to quit than their male partners. If keeping women in their workforce is a priority, employers should conduct an honest analysis of whether a pay gap is contributing to working mothers’ stress and pay them fairly. Doing so may empower a woman to “choose” to keep her job—and all of the positives that go hand-in-hand with that.
  2. Provide a wide range of mental health services—and encourage their use

    The pandemic has had a negative impact on the mental health of many Americans, and requests for mental health services through employer-based healthcare plans has increased dramatically. Employers should increase access to existing services, consider offering mental health care that fits into busy schedules, such as digital therapeutics (ahem... for example, Sleepio and Daylight), and encourage employees to utilize resources by offering universal access, raising awareness of available tools and making sure company culture does not stigmatize mental health struggles.
  3. Encourage healthy behaviors, and model them from the top down

    The time is now for companies to prioritize employee mental health. If the CEO is taking walks, seeing a therapist, or taking a break from email, let everyone know. Setting boundaries is hugely important to wellbeing, and if employees know their manager is making time to take care of their mental and physical health, it might encourage them to do the same.
  4. Revisit the original flexible schedule policy

    At the beginning of the pandemic, most employers instituted some sort of flexible schedule policy. However, Dr. Carl says, the initial accommodation, “has incrementally bled into a no-limits-available-all-the-time culture.” Now’s the time to revisit flex policies and confer with working parents to see what schedule will allow them to successfully juggle their work and family lives.

There’s no question that working mothers are struggling. Employers can take heart from the knowledge that they can play a meaningful role in improving the situation and supporting the mental health of women like Sarah.

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