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Katie Coelho

By Katie Coelho

Oct 29, 2020


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News  |   Marketing Strategy  |   Executives and Leaders

Women in Workplace report: COVID-19 burnout requires leaders to act

Katie Coelho

By Katie Coelho

Oct 29, 2020

Women in Workplace report: COVID-19 burnout requires leaders to act

The Women in the Workplace study has been produced every year since 2015 by McKinsey and Company, and LeanIn.Org. While this study is always valuable, we consider the 2020 report a must-read due to the volatile year and recommendations it contains, as it will directly help you manage effects of what has taken place.

This year, COVID-19 was a main driver of discussion and data collection. The 2020 report largely focuses on how the pandemic has affected women in the workplace, specifically women of different races and ethnicities, working mothers, women in senior leadership and women with disabilities.

More than ever, burnout is a serious issue.

The report warns: 

“This is a critical moment for corporate America. Companies risk losing women in leadership—and future women leaders—and unwinding years of painstaking progress toward gender diversity.”

The report highlights one of the reasons why women have been affected more by the pandemic — not only have women always worked a ‘double shift’ (work and then childcare after), but women of color are more likely to have been laid off or furloughed during the COVID-19 crisis. 

As a result, the report states:

“1 in 4 women are contemplating what many would have considered unthinkable less than a year ago: downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce.”

One in four.

As a woman in a leadership position at a growing company, this data is upsetting. We’ve tried to be more proactive with conversations with employees at IMPACT, but we’ve heard plenty of stories from our employees of family members and friends that have struggled and have not been supported by their companies this year. As business leaders, we have to do better.

🔎 Related: Browse all of our COVID-19 analysis and insights

In a time where businesses have had to adapt for customers, we also have to recognize where employees may be struggling, and adapt for them as well.

What are the most significant Women in the Workplace reports highlights?

For this article, we’ve selected some of the most insightful, and to-the-point data, though we recommend reading the full free, 60-page report to immerse yourself in the full picture.

As an organizational leader myself, two specific data points jumped out at me immediately as the most important for other business leaders to understand and take action on. 

Employees surveyed said their biggest challenges during COVID-19 are:

  • Anxiety over layoffs or furloughs
  • Burnout
  • Mental health
  • Childcare and/or homeschooling responsibilities
  • Physical and mental health of loved ones
  • Financial insecurity

Specifically, the following challenges are more likely to push women out of the workforce:

  • Lack of flexibility at work
  • Feeling like they need to be available to work at all hours, i.e., “always on”
  • Housework and caregiving burdens due to COVID-19
  • Worry that their performance is being negatively judged because of caregiving
  • responsibilities during the pandemic
  • Discomfort sharing the challenges they are facing with teammates or managers
  • Feeling blindsided by decisions that affect their day-to-day work
  • Feeling unable to bring their whole self to work

The report does state that some companies are stepping up, but that they have likely not addressed the underlying causes of burnout. For example, a virtual happy hour or other event — while a valuable and unique way to help remote employees bond while forced apart — will not solve your burnout problems. 

🔎 Related: 4 unique remote team-building activities we love

To put this in context, I asked IMPACT Editorial Director Liz Moorehead (who is also a member of our management team) to reflect on how we've approached this challenge:

“I mean, let's be honest. I don't think any business leader anywhere woke up on the first day of this reality knowing exactly how to tackle this new normal correctly. Because this isn't something where it was just being experienced by workplace staff, right?

From leadership to the front lines, we were all struggling and having to adapt to working from home full-time, working with kids and partners at home, the stresses of being quarantined, the frustrations (for some) of not having a home office set up, and so on.

At IMPACT, we've had to take it day by day and we're definitely still learning — we all are, right? — but something that sticks out to me that we're doing well is that we're not just doing team-building activities or trying to always keep things positive. We send out periodic surveys that genuinely ask how people are feeling, whether they're feeling supported, what they're nervous about, etc.

I think that's the most important thing leaders can start doing immediately if they haven't already. Yes, this is a shared experience, but everyone is experiencing it uniquely. Also, I can't tell you how much your people will appreciate you genuinely asking how they are and providing a concrete outlet for them to give you an honest answer.

You may not be able to fix everything, but trust me, that's where it all begins. You need to know how your people are feeling. You have to ask for what the real problems are.”

Bottom line, as business owners, leaders, or managers, we all have a responsibility to truly understand how direct or indirect effects of the pandemic has uniquely affected our employees, and come up with strategies to help employees feel heard and cope with how life has changed. 

How should business leaders take action?

One of the more insightful recommendations in the reports states;

“There are two paths ahead. If companies recognize the scale of these problems and do all they can to address them, they can help their employees get through this difficult time and even reinvent the way they work so it’s more flexible and sustainable for everyone.

If not, the consequences could badly hurt women, business, and the economy as a whole. This moment requires long-term thinking, creativity, strong leadership, and a laser focus on the value of women to their organizations.”

If you’re a business leader or manager, the call is clear — you need a proactive approach and strategy for checking in on (and supporting) your employees. Specifically, the women in your organization.

🔎 Related: Read our full, ungated inbound leadership guide 

It won’t be easy, but losing female A-players could cost your business more than you think in the long run. Moreover, after decades of progress, women could end up backsliding from positions of success and power in the workplace, due to the pandemic. 

If you don’t want either of those things to happen, the report suggests you:

  • Make work more sustainable 
  • Reset norms around flexibility
  • Take a close look at performance reviews
  • Take steps to minimize gender bias
  • Adjust policies and programs to better support employees
  • Strengthen employee communication

Those six suggestions are seemingly straightforward, but certainly take effort to get right, and truly make employees feel supported. If you can nail these and help them feel supported, surely you’ll have a lifelong promoter for your organization, something that’s valuable for longer than you’d think. 

🔎 Related: Our ultimate list of company culture fit interview questions

When it comes down to it, these six suggestions happen first through great management. If employees spend time with their managers, feel heard and have someone to work through issues with, likely they’ll be more open to support that the organization can give them. 

Will you be a part of the solution?

Keep in mind that “great management” is not all that it will take. You need to demonstrate great leadership and launch proactive, visible initiatives to address these problems. Your people need to see that you’re not only taking proactive steps to solve the problem, you’re also making them feel heard and empowered with outlets to share how they’re feeling and coping. 

Also, while this report focuses specifically on women, know that others are also struggling to adapt to many of the changes forced upon them, as well. So, take steps to guarantee that all of your people feel heard and supported across your entire company. 

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