The Pandemic’s Toll on Working Women and What Companies Can Do
Women business executives have had a front-row seat to the crippling effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic. As workplace leaders, employees, parents, peers and friends, women’s multiple roles at work and at home have left many feeling stretched thin.
The COVID-Related Challenges for Working Women
Recent research conducted by McKinsey & Company® for its sixth “Women in the Workplace” study found that the pandemic has affected women’s confidence, as well as their thoughts about their financial future.1
These effects have been especially hard on mothers, senior-level women, and Black and Latina women. Another disheartening finding was that as many as one in four working women is contemplating either leaving her job or leaving the workforce because of the pandemic’s effects on her home and work life.
For those women considering leaving, the survey found multiple forces are at work. These include a lack of flexibility in their jobs, the feeling that they must be available to work at all hours, and the added pressures of housework and caregiving related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The study also found that mothers are more likely than fathers to consider scaling back work or leaving because of increased parenting or caregiving responsibilities. Because of this, companies risk losing women in leadership roles, erasing years of gains in women’s influence in the workplace. A movement like this could have a domino effect on company cultures, since women are more likely than men to embrace employee-friendly policies and to take a stand for gender and racial equity at work.
On the positive side, the McKinsey study also found that many companies have made efforts in supporting women – and parents – during the pandemic by expanding support services and communicating valuable information on an ongoing basis. Some companies have truly gone the extra mile to reduce stress on women. Examples of these stress reducers include changing the performance review process to account for burnout, offering funds to offset the costs of working from home, or maintaining programs to address personal well-being and enrichment.
Nearly, 2.2 million women have left the workforce since February according to a recent analysis by the National Women’s Law Center.2 And this can have huge implications on a company’s bottom line. In fact, 2019 Gallup research indicates it can cost one-half to two times the employee’s annual salary to replace just one individual.3 The good news is that there are actions companies can take to help support and retain women.
Working Women Need Balance
One of the biggest challenges for working women during the pandemic is helping them find balance between the demands of their job or career and the demands of home and family. Numerous experts have highlighted this issue and offered solutions.
Dr. Marianne Cooper, lead researcher for Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book Lean In, and one of the authors of the “Women in the Workplace” study was featured in a recent “Equal Parts” podcast on the topic. She suggests that companies work to create more boundaries between home and work, and to create ways to offer more work flexibility. She also suggests pausing performance reviews that do not address maternal bias, and to simply check in on people to see how they’re doing.
To that end, KeyBank has implemented programs and benefits designed to encourage and promote a healthier work-life balance for working women and parents. One of these includes a parent networking group called Parents are Key, focused on supporting and encouraging working parents through employee development, resources and networking. The group was formed prior to the pandemic, but according to chairperson Katie Wilgus, its programming quickly changed in March with the onset of pandemic-related shutdowns. Response to the group’s recent efforts has been overwhelmingly positive, Wilgus observes.
“Parents are Key recognized very quickly that we had an opportunity to be a voice that needed to influence organizational initiatives and fundamental policies to help support our fellow working parents and caregivers here at Key,” Wilgus, a Lead Sales Enablement Manager at KeyBank, explains. “Parents make up almost half of our workforce. If parents are not supported at work, critical talent can be lost. Groups like ours fill a critical need for the employee and employer alike.”
This year, Parents are Key hosted numerous virtual programs, including coffee breaks, and a discussion series featuring experts on topics such as balancing work and life as a parent, education, and how to talk about racial diversity and inclusion with children.
Promoting Personal Health and Wellness
Promoting health and wellness is another way companies can support working women. There are many resources available to help organizations communicate the importance of wellness and self-care. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health offers recommendations on being physically active, developing healthy habits and understanding mental health.
KeyBank has also incorporated programs designed to foster wellness in employees during the pandemic. Katie Talarico, Benefits/Wellness Program Manager at KeyBank, shares some recommendations for companies wanting to increase their focus in this area.
“Many of the benefits we put into place to help with the pandemic had the needs of women in mind,” she says. Of those, Talarico says KeyBank has leveraged help from its Employee Assistance Program to establish support groups addressing emotional and mental health concerns related to the pandemic. Companies can also research and tap into a wide range of community resources offering speakers and resources for personal health and wellness.
“Stress relief sessions offered by KeyBank have been especially well-received,” Talarico says. These are held three days a week for 15 minutes. “This series got a lot of traction with our workforce.”
According to Talarico, many of the ideas the bank has implemented this year are reasonable in cost and can be adopted by companies both large and small. KeyBank’s programs have included:
- A quarterly weeklong virtual wellness fair called “Thrive Week,” featuring outside speakers and multiple programs to boost wellness and personal health. Two of the virtual fairs focused on stress and mindfulness to help support mental and emotional health.
- A network of 35 “Wellness Champions” across the bank’s service areas – employees who have volunteered to support the bank’s wellness initiatives locally and to develop a tailored approach in their area.
- A walking program, called “Staying Well Connected,” in which employees can connect with each other while walking.
- Weekly wellness check-ins to reinforce health and wellness topics, such as combating weight gain and developing healthy habits.
Creating COVID-19–Conscious Benefits
Offering new employee benefits in response to the COVID-19 crisis is yet another avenue for organizations to respond to women’s concerns during the pandemic. KeyBank’s Talarico shares additional benefit options companies might consider to support employees during the pandemic:
- Take flexible schedules to a new level. This remains a highly valued perk that isn’t costly to provide.
- Extend reimbursement programs to help cover employees’ costs related to children attending school virtually, including computers and internet costs, as well as dependent care costs.
- Fitness programs keep employees active and outdoors when possible.
In developing programs and choosing benefits, make sure to get input from your employees, Talarico says. “It’s important to talk with and listen to employees or use surveys to uncover the largest pain points.”
Smaller companies should leverage their health insurance vendors and employee assistance programs for even more resources, such as free counseling, Talarico adds. Companies can also partner with local community organizations or foundations offering their own resources, such as access to hardship support grants that employees can apply for. “Even small things can make a big impact during this highly stressful time,” she says.