Emily Litzinger and Raeann Burgo are attorneys at the national labor and employment law firm Fisher Phillips where they represent employers.
Who we are today is certainly not who we were in 2019. The pandemic has undoubtedly changed us all and, importantly, the workplace and how people do business. We have all suffered a once-in-a-lifetime trauma and we are different because of it. Women, in particular, have been placed under severe strain expected to fill multiple roles at work and at home, and these pressures have impacted their mental health.
As the pandemic landscape changes, the workforce continues to struggle, with many perceiving gaps in employer support, including a lack of mental health support. One survey reported that 80% of remote workers say they would consider leaving their current job for one that prioritizes mental well-being.
Mental health will continue to be a key priority as employers plan for a return to the workplace. Flexibility and hybrid work remains a highly valued element to that support — particularly for female employees.
The fear of returning to work exists for many women as surveys report that female workers are more likely than their male counterparts to worry that they will have less flexibility to take breaks and set their own schedule upon return. Women are also more likely to want to work from home than men and have reported higher rates of stress, depression and hours worked — especially if they have kids.
Before the pandemic these women had structures, which entailed distinct transitions between various roles. They were mothers in the morning, professionals during the day, friends at happy hour, tutors at night. When March 2020 hit, those roles collided. Women found themselves without the infrastructures that help define those roles and alleviate the labor as schools, daycares, elder care and cleaning services all shut down. There was a sheer collapse of all boundaries. Women's mental health suffered for it.
As a result, women reported feeling more burned out than men. Not surprisingly, mothers, senior-level women and Black women are significantly more impacted. In turn, one in four women and one in three mothers have reported thinking about downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce. To retain employees, particularly female employees, and recruit female talent, employers must proactively place workers and their mental wellness at the center of business strategies.
Make mental health a company-wide priority
Company leaders should drive awareness and action on mental health. Normalizing mental health discussions is step number one. A culture in which employees feel supported by co-workers and management makes them more likely to share their feelings or challenges. Employers should work toward fostering a workplace culture that empowers women to bring their whole selves (mother, colleague, friend, caretaker) to work, whether they are physically in the office or work remotely.
Reimagine the workplace
The world is changing before our eyes. Now is the time to embrace that change. Employers should consider whether full-time in-person attendance is vital to business or just what is familiar and "the way it's done."
Women with children at home have indicated returning to the workplace will have a negative impact on their mental health, a recent survey reveals. Simply, employees with access to remote work had lower rates of burnout in regard to work, their personal life and COVID-19, according to research conducted with Catalyst.
Providing employees, particularly women, with the ability to determine for themselves how often they work from home will not only help employees but will put employers in a position to successfully retain and advance a significant number of women. Allowing for remote work, however, is not alone enough to normalize this practice. Company leaders should work remotely themselves and openly promote flexibility.
Provide mental health resources and effectively communicate their availability
While employee assistance plans and mental health days are good starting points, employees are looking for more when it comes to mental health support. One of the bigger barriers to employees actively seeking mental health support is that they do not know who to ask or if it is okay to ask.
Employers should consider appointing a "mental health resource manager." This will be someone that employees can go to with questions specifically about the organization's mental health resources and support. The act of designating and announcing a "mental health resource manager" demonstrates that it is OK to ask. Still, the most effective way to make employees comfortable with asking for help is for leadership to have open discussions with employees about their experiences with mental health issues and their use of the organization's mental health resources.
There are also several resources, which an employer can make available to employees that can have a positive impact on mental health, such as:
- Mental health self-assessment tools.
- Free or subsidized clinical screenings for depression from a qualified mental health professional.
- Free or subsidized lifestyle coaching, counseling or self-management programs.
- Seminars or workshops that address stress management techniques.
Drive accountability by tracking progress
It is often said "you can't manage what you don't know." Employers should measure progress and outcomes through active tracking of employee well-being. Employers should target the outcomes of various initiatives, for example, tracking the utilization of EAP tools, employee experiences and the impact benefits have on the mental health of employees, especially working mothers who are likely to be experiencing higher levels of stress. Measurements can be taken through employee surveys, usage of the resources, mental health assessments, focus groups or aggregate claims data.
The pandemic has turned everything upside down, and the mental health of employees has been drastically impacted. There are no boundaries anymore. For employers to retain female talent or attract that talent to return to the workplace, they should work strategically and equitably toward a commitment to mental wellness in the workplace.