The last 18 months have been tough on pretty much everyone. In the beginning – in those early days and months when COVID-19 first slowly crept into our consciousness and then suddenly upended everything about life as we’d known it – the media gave lots of very well-deserved attention to the medical and emergency first responders. But what about another category of first responders, a category that didn’t generate the same kind of news buzz (if they received any news buzz at all)? What about the world’s working mums? 

These are your friends, family members, coworkers, and employees who have been pushed and pulled in so many more directions and carried so many more responsibilities than those of us who take for granted the support of a spouse or partner. 

Working-mum burnout is absolutely a thing. It’s even got a label: the pink-collar recession. And it’s reached epidemic proportions.

It’s unfortunate that this may come as news to so many professionals whose responsibilities include the care and feeding of their employees. After all, as an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer noted: “Women already shoulder more responsibility for the domestic and emotional work in a family – disparities [that have been] heightened by COVID – and typically make less than men – 82 cents on the dollar.” 

No wonder working mums are leaving their jobs en masse, while the ones hanging on are at the breaking point.

 

The exodus is affecting all women

Several studies, including this one from the Boston College Center for Work & Family, show that COVID-19 has caused women to reduce their work hours or leave their jobs to care for children. Very recent research from KKF (the Kaiser Family Foundation) found, for example, that:

  • One in 10 women with young children quit their job because of the pandemic.
  • 17% of single mothers reported higher rates of quitting their job because a child’s school or daycare closed or reported feeling unsafe in their workplace, compared with 9% of working women who are married or have partners.
  • Women were more likely than men to take time off work because of a COVID-19 family illness or because of school closures; the number was disproportionately higher among low-income women.

A 2020 report from McKinsey found that over 25% of women are considering what many of them would have considered unthinkable even last year: downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely. “The pandemic has intensified challenges that women already faced,” the McKinsey report says.

 

Working mums who are still standing are at the breaking point

One survey found that 68% of working mothers in the U.S. have sought mental health treatment during the pandemic, compared with 47% of women without children. Factors exacerbating stress and burnout among working mums have included financial instability and a lack of support for child care. A recent survey on the mental health of working mums that was reported in EBN found that among working mothers:

  • More than half are feeling anxious
  • 37% feel isolated
  • Most are struggling to keep that stress out of their work life

It would be easy to argue that working mums everywhere suffered more than any other group from two sets of COVID-19-related set of events:

  • The struggles of child care centres to function amid COVID-19: Up to 40% of U.S. day care centres closed during the pandemic while all of them struggled with parental and worker anxiety and the additional costs of everything from protective gear to deep cleaning.
  • The nearly universal closure of schools, at least temporarily: And even as schools invited students back into the classrooms, it’s been with shorter hours or a hybrid teaching model.


What can you do? Some leaders and companies are showing the way.

Looking at the global impact of COVID-19 on working mothers, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed last year created Rise for All, a call to action for women leaders around the world to ease the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19.

The project gathered a who’s who of international women leaders, including Melinda Gates; Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF; and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women. Rise for All distributed $1 billion in its first nine months, with an additional $2 billion promised over two years to support low- and middle-income countries whose women are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the pandemic.

In the U.S., as part of May’s Mental Health Awareness Month, the pharmacy chain CVS Health partnered with health benefits provider Aetna to launch a variety of resources targeted to working mothers, women, and caregivers. The initiative came in response to a CVS survey that found 45% of women are struggling with their mental health – and 42% don’t know how to navigate mental health support and seek appropriate care.

Individual employers, meanwhile, have taken steps to help working parents find child care, and some have offered stipends to support the costs of child care, as well as house-cleaning and transportation costs. A New York Times article suggests other forms of company support, including:

  • Not penalising employees for attending to their caregiving duties.
  • When it’s time for employee evaluations, asking managers to remember how much additional work – and stress – working mums have been dealing with.
  • Asking hiring managers to not toss out resumes that have pandemic-era gaps, and to consider rehiring employees who were left out for caregiving reasons.
  • Not going back to “normal” office life; the pandemic has taught us that people are happier, healthier, and more productive when they have control over where and when they work – especially parents.

As we move into a post-COVID-19 era of work, more employers are tuning into the need to offer more wellness tools and programmes that can reach all of their employees. They’re also leaning into wellness platforms that have personalised communication, options for different age and demographic groups, and signposting to target tools and programmes to unique employee groups – working mums, for example. 

Adopting more programmes to target employee mental health is certainly on the uptick. This selection of our most-read content on employee mental health gives HR and wellness leaders insight into programmes and easily actionable tips to support employee mental health.

But programmes cost money, right? An idea to find more wellness pounds (often overlooked when healthcare benefit plans are being built) is to see if your health insurance provider offers wellness pounds. These are a percent of the healthcare premium a company pays to its insurance carrier, to be invested in qualifying wellness programmes. It’s a set amount, and the programme works very much like an allowance.

The bottom line is that working mums have disproportionately suffered during the pandemic. What is your company doing to ensure that as we move into the post-COVID-19 world, your working mums continue to be vital, valued, and engaged members of your workforce?