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Pandemic burnout is leading to devastating consequences for women, and it could set gender equality back a generation, a sociologist warns.
Coming out of the pandemic is an opportunity to build more equitable workplaces—but only if employers act now. Otherwise, burnout is likely going to either drive women out of the paid workforce entirely or cause them to dial back their careers, potentially setting back gender equality by a whole generation, says Shelley Correll, professor of sociology at Stanford University and director of the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab.
Since the very beginning of the pandemic, Correll and her team have been running focus groups with employees from across the country to learn how remote work is transforming their workplace culture and norms. While employees note many benefits of remote work and report a desire to keep working remotely in the future, the expectations that employees be “always on” for work and for family has also led to an increase in feelings of burnout—so much so that many, especially women, are leaving or considering leaving their jobs, Correll says.
As workplaces roll out new hybrid work policies, there is an opportunity to reduce stress and burnout, thereby increasing gender equity and inclusion, but we must be intentional in how we design these policies or we risk importing old biases and barriers into our new hybrid work arrangements, Correll stresses.
Here, Correll shares some of the insights she’s gleaned from her discussions with organizations from across the country and some of her concerns that, if not done right, hybrid work could potentially roll back diversity and inclusion:
Q: What have you been surprised by in your focus groups about how the pandemic is transforming the way we work?
A: First, the pandemic has fundamentally and permanently transformed how we work. It has given us a unique chance—one that I never thought I would see in my lifetime—to really make things better. We can create new norms, new cultures, and new ways of working. Gender scholars have long argued that giving employees more control over when and where they work would increase gender equity at work. That opportunity is here at this moment. But if we’re not intentional about how we roll out hybrid work, we will likely just create a new version of the same old problem, where we allow employees to work remotely, but continue to implicitly value the “ideal worker” who puts in long hours in the office. My hope is that we seize this moment and create organizations that are truly more diverse and more equitable.
Q: Two years into the global pandemic, what issues continue to be problematic for the employees you have spoken with, particularly women employees?
A: Mental health challenges and the lack of reliable childcare continue to be problematic for many employees. Feelings of burnout have increased over the last year for both men and women, but more so for women. The latest Women in the Workplace report found that 42% of women said they were always or almost always burned out. That’s extremely high. My big concern, in terms of gender equality, is that this high level of burnout is going to either drive women out of the paid workforce entirely or cause them to dial back their careers to something that is more manageable. If we’re not careful, we could roll back gender equality by a generation.
Q: What do you think is behind the burnout you’re seeing in women?
A: Part of the burnout is family-related: since the pandemic started, women are doing considerably more caregiving of children and elderly relatives than they were before the pandemic. Men have increased their hours of caregiving as well, but as Harvard economist Claudia Goldin has shown, women in heterosexual couples currently do 66% of all caregiving.
Another thing we have heard in our focus groups, from very early on in the pandemic, is that because of the multiple challenges facing employees, managers need to be people-centered, checking in with their employees frequently and helping them figure out how to navigate the challenges they face. Women managers really picked up the mantle, spending more time than men on helping employee well-being.
What this means is women managers are doing more caregiving at work and at home—that’s where the burnout comes from. The intensity of burnout has led many women to look for new careers that are less demanding, and, in some cases, drop out of the paid labor force entirely.
Q: How might companies address the issue of burnout?
A: The ability to be on Zoom had made it possible for us to keep working during the pandemic and it has many benefits going forward, but since Zoom allows us to easily “jump on a quick call” from anywhere and at any time, it has also made employees feel like they’re always on.
To reduce burnout, leaders need to be clear in their messaging that they don’t expect people to be on call 24/7, and they need to put policies in place to ensure employees are getting time away from work. But what we’ve seen happen is leaders instate a policy to reduce burnout and then managers implement it in ways that run counter to the policy’s goals.
I was speaking at one company where someone said, “Things have gotten much better at our company since our CEO said that we’re not going to have any Zoom meetings on Friday. Everybody feels better and we’re not as burned out anymore.” But then another employee from the same company said, “Not my manager. My manager says Friday would be a good day for us to have meetings because nobody else is asking for meetings that day.” This manager’s behavior clearly undermines the policy.
Q: There seems to be a paradox between workers being burned out on the one hand but emboldened on the other to find new positions with higher pay or better perks. How do you resolve this?
A: We are seeing employees recognize that they have choices. For example, if an employee wants to work fewer hours and have a less stressful job, that job is there for them. If they are looking for a better-paying job, that job is there too.
Many professional workers have also been working very productively from home for two years. They know that if their current employer won’t let them continue working remotely, at least a couple of days per week, they can find a job where they can. Employees are voting with their feet, and companies are responding, some reluctantly, with plans for remote work options going forward. As a result, what initially looked like a temporary blip in working remotely due to the pandemic is now emerging as a new workplace practice that’s here to stay.
Q: Are there misunderstandings or misconceptions about gender disparities that you’ve encountered in your research, particularly over the past two years with COVID?
A: One of the biggest mistakes that employers make is to think of women as a monolithic group. Women bearing the brunt of caregiving has been one problem that’s gotten the most attention from employers and the media—it’s an important issue and deserves attention, but there are other challenges, such as frequently experiencing microaggressions, which is more common for women of color, lesbian women, and disabled women. If we don’t attend to the different experiences that different groups of women have in our workplaces, we will inadvertently create policies that mostly benefit straight white women.
Q: Any further advice for staying optimistic as we rethink the future of work?
A: At the individual level, it is important to recognize that we all have the capacity to make our workplaces more inclusive by treating our colleagues with dignity and respect. Employees experience workplace culture through their daily interactions with others. These interactions are what make us feel like we are included and belong in our organizations versus isolated and excluded. It’s heartbreaking when I read research where people say that they left their job because no one talked to them or that they frequently experienced microaggressions.
I urge people to set an intention each day, whether they go into the office or meet over Zoom, to carry out one act that makes someone’s day better than it was the day before. That may sound small, but it can make a big difference in how people feel about their job, and we need that right now.
For leaders, the decisions you make during this moment of change are crucial. By intentionally centering diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), asking how your hybrid policies will affect women, people of color and other underrepresented groups, you can seize this moment and create workplaces that are truly more inclusive.
Melissa De Witte is a contributing writer at Futurity.