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“We’re (Not Really) Fine”: The Disproportionate Effect of Pandemic Burnout on Female Leaders

*Please note: In this article, the word “women” is used inclusively of all female-identifying leaders.

 

It’s day 6,521 of quarantine. You boot up your laptop, open your inbox, and see approximately 742 new messages — all beginning with, “I hope this email finds you well!” Or, in jest: “I hope this email finds you testing negative and staying positive.”

(Feel free to borrow that one.)

The reality is that we don’t always — or even often — feel that way. We have now been dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic for eight months, and though it has impacted almost everyone, it has hit women particularly hard – and women of color the absolute hardest. McKinsey & Company and LeanIn recently released their annual “Women in the Workplace” report, and what they found is that women have overwhelmingly reported facing challenges with anxiety, burnout, and mental health during this time.

In short: women, as a group, are at risk of falling behind.

Working 9 to ????

Women leaders are diligently working, but struggling to meet job expectations they had prior to Covid-19. There are several possible culprits for the constant push to get things done: not least fears about impending layoffs and furloughs, with the attendant uncertainty about one’s future financial situation or longer-term career prospects. All this is compounded by dealing with personal responsibilities at home. This anxiety places women in a constant catch-22 of trying to reach unattainable goals and/or keep up with an unsustainable pace. Of course, they cannot do this for very long before burnout sets in. To cope with this extreme stress, 1 in 4 women are considering downshifting, moving to a lower-level position, or leaving the workforce altogether. Given that women make up over half the workforce, this means we’d lose an alarming number of highly skilled, qualified, and capable workers and leaders. This statistic also means that progress made on closing the gender gap in leadership is likely to be threatened.

Luckily, some companies have begun to address this troubling issue. They have:

  • Given updates on the financial situation of the organization and informed employees about paid leave and flexible work policies.
  • Increased access to services, such as employee enrichment programs.
  • Provided training about how to help with employee mental health and well-being.
  • Offered more support and resources for employees working remotely.

These initial steps are a start, but they miss a few key areas that could go even further toward fully addressing this issue— and providing women with the support they need to in order to prevent them from leaving the workforce altogether. Modifying company standards, practices, and policies would go a long way in alleviating burnout. This includes analyzing whether performance review criteria and expectations account for challenges related to the pandemic. For instance, supervisors and colleagues may assume that a mother who works from home is not focused and present if she continues to engage with her children in the same room. With explicitly modified performance expectations, the mother would not be penalized for engaging with her child because managers would change their definition of what it means to be “present” at work. Such adjustments would consider the balancing act women must maintain while working during the pandemic, whether on the frontlines or at home. While men also balance home and work responsibilities, it should be noted that more often than not women engage in higher levels of caregiving work and unpaid labor.

Mental Health Concerns

Women are (not surprisingly) increasingly concerned about mental health for themselves and those around them. What’s more, we can expect pandemic-induced stress levels to remain steady or even go up, as Covid-19 numbers are on the uptick. This is an even more troublesome finding for Black women in particular, as they are three times more likely than non-Black women to state that they’ve struggled with losing a loved one recently. After a year that showed both significantly higher cases of and deaths due to Covid-19 in Black and Latinx communities and a summer of racial unrest, Black women may question their ability to adequately cope with everything going on around them. While companies have provided resources for mental health (i.e., counseling, health checks, bereavement support, etc.), there remain reservations about whether providing these benefits is adequately sufficient in showing genuine support for women overall – and addressing the unique needs of Black women specifically. One thing is clear: more needs to be done.

Here are some recommendations for companies who want to make sure women in the workplace feel supported and valued:

  • Analyze and redefine performance criteria and performance review expectations to make sure they include challenges arising from Covid-19 and geographic hardships (e.g., wildfires on the West Coast).
    • Offer project/deadline extensions for employees, narrow the scope of work to be completed, and create a culture where employees feel comfortable taking space to recharge and take a breather (i.e., including small breaks in between meetings).
    • Here at Vantage, we’ve noticed that employees have felt drained and overwhelmed during the day (especially during days filled with back-to-back video meetings), so we have gotten a company subscription to Calm, and encourage practicing mindfulness and meditation throughout the day. We’ve also set aside time on Friday mornings for employees to get together in half-hour “Gratitude Circles” before ending the week. It’s worth noting that these opportunities to pause, reflect, and recharge have been very beneficial.
  • Encourage employees to bring their “whole selves” to work.
    • Create policies around flexible working hours and communicate about when the workday starts/ends. Here at Vantage, we’ve been clear about not scheduling internal meetings (or even client meetings, if possible) the first and last hour of each day.
    • Recognize and acknowledge the emotional toll Covid-19, natural disasters, and racial unrest have on vulnerable populations (specifically BIPOC women). Find ways to support them explicitly (i.e., create Employee Resource Groups, provide increased mental health support). Here, we have regular, honest conversations around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to ensure we make all employees and clients feel valued, listened to and included.

At this point, it’s no longer news that the pandemic has exacerbated already-existing inequalities across many spheres. Organizations have a big role to play in mitigating this – not only to address disparities in leadership and accommodate varied working contexts, but to ensure the wellness of the human beings who show up for them every day.

And answer 742 emails.

What is your organization doing to address the needs of female employees – and particularly, women of color? Share with us in the comments below!

About Alexandria Redmond

Lexi joined Vantage in 2020 as an Intern/Research Assistant. She is originally from Baltimore, MD and currently resides in Orlando, FL. She graduated in 2018 with her B.S. in Psychology, and she recently completed her M.S. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology with an International Concentration at Florida Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys storytelling of any kind, whether it’s a good book, movie, or musical. She also loves to travel and explore new places.

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