COVID-19 Pandemic: One Year Later, Women are Twice As Burnt-Out As Men in the Workplace

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A year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, women have made important gains in representation, and especially in senior leadership. But the pandemic continues to take a toll. Women are now significantly more burned out — and increasingly more so than men, a new study notes.

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The McKinsey Women in the Workplace 2021 study on the state of women in corporate America, says that despite the challenges of the pandemic, women’s representation had improved across most of the corporate pipeline at the end of 2020.

“This is an encouraging sign — and worth recognizing after an incredibly difficult year. But there are also persistent gaps in the pipeline: promotions at the first step up to manager are not equitable, and women of color lose ground in representation at every level,” the study notes.

A key finding of the study is that women are even more burned out than they were a year ago, and the gap in burnout between women and men has almost doubled. In the past year, 1 in 3 women has considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers — a significant increase from 1 in 4 in the first few months of the pandemic, according to McKinsey. In addition, 42% of women say they have been often or almost always burned out in 2021, compared to 32% a year ago.

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Leslie Tarnacki, SVP of Global Human Resources at WorkForce Software, tells GOBankingRates that recognizing and seeking to reverse the negative effect the pandemic had on women in the workplace is critical — especially right now.

“More than 800,000 women left the workforce between August and September 2020, and it’s taking time to bring them back,” Tarnacki says.

“It’s important for managers to learn more about the circumstances that led to their departure from the workforce and offer solutions that will provide meaningful support to women or the additional flexibility that may be required to become a desirable employer to women whose unmet needs were sufficient to drive them away from their positions,” she adds.

“Companies can’t truly find solutions or implement practices that provide women with equal opportunities if women aren’t given a seat at the table in the first place. Organizations must engage women in strategic planning and management initiatives like policy planning to make a difference; by having women heavily involved from the start, their perspectives will be incorporated as planning is occurring.”

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McKinsey’s study also finds that there is also a disconnect between companies’ growing commitment to racial equity and the lack of improvement we see in the day-to-day experiences of women of color.

“Women of color face similar types and relative frequencies of microaggressions as they did two years ago–and they remain far more likely than white women to be on the receiving end of disrespectful and “othering” behavior,” McKinsey notes.

They also continue to lose ground at every step in the pipeline: between the entry-level and the C-suite, the representation of women of color drops off by more than 75%. As a result, women of color account for only 4% of C-suite leaders, a number that hasn’t moved significantly in the past three years, according to the study.

Lana Peters, VP of the Americas at HR platform Hibob, tells GOBankingRates that women of color were battling to secure their rightful place in the C-suite prior to the pandemic. Now, complicated by childcare and extended family illnesses, this group of individuals continues to be underrepresented based on pre-existing circumstances including male-dominated C-suites, bias in hiring practices and a lack of understanding of the intrinsic value these women bring to all organizations, she adds.

“If companies want to change who ends up at the top of their org chart, they need to reconsider policies, processes and cultural norms that have perpetuated systemic inequalities. The first step is to reevaluate the skills and values that shape your hiring and promotion process,” Peters says.

As women move into leadership roles, their day-to-day experiences often get more difficult. Compared to entry-level women, they are more than twice as likely to say they are “Onlys”, i.e., often the only or one of the only women in the room at work. They are also more likely to face microaggressions that challenge their competence — such as being interrupted, hearing comments on their emotional state or having their judgment questioned. Men face these challenges more rarely and do not face them at greater rates as they gain seniority.

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Finally, the study notes an issue inherent to the pandemic: while companies have embraced flexibility, many of them are missing a crucial piece: without clear boundaries, flexible work can quickly turn into “always on” work.

Indeed, more than a third of employees feel like they need to be available for work 24/7, and almost half believe they need to work long hours to get ahead. Employees who feel this way are much more likely to be burned out and to consider leaving their companies.

“Companies should have clear hard boundaries regarding employee performance, but otherwise we should become increasingly flexible to work models that improve our employees’ quality of lives — even if it’s out of our norm of the 9-5, M to F, in-office cubicles,” Ashley Paterson, Founder and CEO of Healthy Hippo Naturals Inc., tells GOBankingRates.

“I think companies should make a decision of what they’re willing to accommodate, make the open offer to employees and see what preferences come about. Making these trials and keeping consistent and transparent performance metrics, will help us determine what works best for our individual teams.”

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About the Author

Yaël Bizouati-Kennedy is a former full-time financial journalist and has written for several publications, including Dow Jones, The Financial Times Group, Bloomberg and Business Insider. She also worked as a vice president/senior content writer for major NYC-based financial companies, including New York Life and MSCI. Yaël is now freelancing and most recently, she co-authored  the book “Blockchain for Medical Research: Accelerating Trust in Healthcare,” with Dr. Sean Manion. (CRC Press, April 2020) She holds two master’s degrees, including one in Journalism from New York University and one in Russian Studies from Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, France.

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