The past year has raised awareness on professional burnout as people struggled to balance the shifting demands of work, home, and family due to COVID-19. It has also brought to light the precarious position of career women, especially mothers trying to do it all at the expense of their physical, emotional, and mental health. EWF International has put together a review of the effects of burnout and virtual work on career women, plus forecasts on how work may shift in the future.

Burnout for Women in the Workplace

The upheaval of COVID made more apparent and exacerbated balance issues for career women. Pandemic restrictions sent many companies and workers scrambling to learn how to operate effectively. The dramatic change in the economy, consumption of goods and services, and production also made workers aware of the fragility of their employers and potentially their occupation.

Chief among concerns for all workers during the pandemic was the possibility of a coming furlough or layoff. Especially women who saw an increased likelihood of furlough or layoff compared to their male peers. This anxiety also fueled concerns about financial insecurity. These negative feelings had an exponential effect on career women who already feel baseline pressure to perform better than their male peers to achieve the same level of recognition and respect. 

This compounding of critical thoughts became omnipresent for many women, making it difficult to fully commit their time and attention to both the work at hand in the office and their families when at home. Many women could feel their mental and physical health take a turn for the worse. Because of the nature of the pandemic and unstable employer situation, employees knuckled down to keep working through the mounting pressure, feeling incapable of taking the time off needed to recoup—mental fatigue leading many to look for a new pressure release valve in the form of alternative career paths. 

Many workers taking a previously unconsidered interest in reducing their role, hours worked or taking a leave of absence. As noted in this April article from Forbes, given the continued rise of contract work, the online gig economy, and disillusionment with the corporate career path, more than one-third of millennials plan to quit their job after the pandemic.

Hastening this alternative path for many career women was COVID-19’s impact on children. As traditional schooling and childcare services melted away, working parents were left to find a way to manage their children on top of their job. This shift was especially true for career women who lacked work-from-home flexibility in their position or company.

Virtual Work & Reduced Representation

According to Lean In’s Women in the Workplace 2020 study, childcare and the health of a loved one ranked number four and five on the biggest concerns of career women due to COVID-19. As a pillar for their family, many career women felt a dual pinch in the situation. The first was that in their relationship, a male spouse was significantly less likely to consider reducing their career or downshifting their work role to meet the home and family’s needs better. The second pinch, being the cultural idea that childcare and home care are primarily female responsibilities. 

The move to virtual work did not solve these issues either. Working mothers continued to find themselves stretched thin as they tried to balance a full workday in addition to housework, childcare, homeschool, and providing home care assistance for older family members. For many women, the transition to virtual work left them feeling “always on.” For some, it was driven by the fear of judgment by needing to perform home obligations. Due to the situation, career women often felt they could not share these challenges and concerns with their co-workers or managers. That by highlighting their difficulty, it would be seen as a lack of competence on their part.

For other career women, especially senior leaders and self-professed workaholics, a feeling of obligation to always check in on what’s happening grew. The idea was that when our work commute turned into 30 seconds, it became too easy to start a little earlier and finish a little later. Work became such a difficult thing to disengage from because it was always within arms reach, day or night. Many of these concerns women leaders carried for their teams as well.

Our Executive Forum Members have been very expressive about the lifeline EWF International’s forum has been for them throughout this situation. How the other members of the executive forum have been there to help overcome business obstacles, navigate personal challenges, and provide the much-needed support of peer relationships among women who care about them and want to see them thrive.

Other concerns career women faced in virtual work included challenges from their organization. Few companies even now have taken steps to adjust expectations or provide concrete plans to create stability for virtual workers. Instead, they continue to rely on temporary fixes and ad hoc solutions that feel impermanent, exacerbating stress and uncertainty for employees. In some cases, the hard cost of working from home was a major issue. Creating a productive virtual work environment at home is difficult and relies on having space, quality internet service, office supplies, and other sundries typically provided by a person’s workplace. Difficult for some workers, especially if the only alternative is the daily cost of using a co-working space.

As a result of these pressures, one in four women considered downshifting their career or leaving the workforce in response to COVID-19. A movement that threatens the already tenuous link between career women and the highest levels of leadership in the US and has the potential to create a lost generation of women in senior leadership and backslide gender parity across the board. A prospect that could keep young, driven women from reaching their full potential because they don’t have senior leadership to help them develop inside the company and women in senior leadership to advocate for their success.

Post-COVID Future for Career Women

The impact of COVID-19 hasn’t all been bad. In many ways, the pandemic has shown a harsh light on contemporary business practices that needed updating and forced implementations that would have taken years for organizations to complete voluntarily. The most prominent of these changes has been how many companies are now open to full and part-time remote work positions. Coupled with the flexibility of location is new flexibility in time worked. 

This change has been a big boon to career women that also serve as head caretaker for their family, allowing them the flexibility to better attend the needs of their home, children, or caring for an older family member. In addition, companies are providing stipends to offset the cost of full-time, work-from-home positions and missing out on the small and large perks of working in-office. These small changes have significantly impacted the 25% of career women who considered downshifting or leaving the workforce because of such issues.

We also see organizations making adjustments to address burnout. Companies are increasing their PTO and vacation benefits, with some organizations going all-in with unlimited PTO allotments. Some are instituting mandatory vacation days for employees, forcing them to step away and take a break even when employees cannot or will not heed the warning signs of burnout. And some companies are taking a more structured approach to burnout and mental fatigue by providing better mental health and well-being benefits and programs to support workers.

Still, it’s important to remember that the issues of burnout and work flexibility existed before COVID-19 and will continue. As many companies continue to grow and address these issues, your organization mustn’t be left behind.

What Should Your Company Be Doing to Address Issues of Burnout and Support the Future of Virtual Work 

As companies pivot to address burnout and work flexibility, the pandemic has made these issues a high priority for current employees and job seekers. Providing the right benefits, structure, and expectations will be imperative to recruiting and retaining the best talent on the market, especially career women unequally affected by these issues. Here are the things your company should be considered to remain a competitor for the top talent in your industry.

Create Flexible Work Expectations

We now know that much of our work can be done effectively in many locations at many times. Being able to help talent find their right work-life balance is a powerful tool for recruitment and retainment. This adaptation includes resetting norms around flexibility and the idea that a person may not be immediately available during the standard 8-to-5, Monday-Friday workweek. While many organizations have been operating with an ad hoc remote work plan, now is the time to cement a sustainable plan for long-term, flexible work arrangements.

Develop a Communications Plan

Create guidelines and training for communicating with team members in different locations and different working times. Doing so will lay a solid foundation of expectations and provide structure for what is and is not appropriate when collaborating with remote team members.

Revise Your PTO and Vacation Policies

Develop a better framework for PTO and vacation. Not only does your company need to provide the ability for employees to take time off, but you also need to provide proper support for their absence so employees feel they can take time off without detriment to their performance, co-workers, and clients. Depending on your culture, structure, and industry, this may include developing a mandatory vacation policy.

Reset Performance Reviews

Most performance review criteria were developed under the assumption employees would be on-location and in-office at all times. As we move towards a more hybrid work culture, inclusivity, impartiality, and objectivity in managing hybrid teams are critical, especially as a means to combat personal bias. Develop new performance review criteria that address the performance and productivity of remote employees equitably and clearly communicate the new expectations with everyone.

Adjust Policies to Support the New Normal

Taking an active role in addressing burnout, remote work, and hybrid team management can seem overwhelming. After months of running virtual and hybrid work by necessity, we still find old policies and ideas that don’t work for the new normal. Making a complete adjustment to your company will take time. It’s most important to be aware and make the changes as they become known. Even then, there are few definitive best practices about how to address these issues. 

Throughout the past year, we have received so many thank-yous and praise from our EWF International Executive Forum members for providing a forum where executive women can come together and discuss their organizational, professional, and personal challenges of the past year. We are proud our executive peer advisory forums provide precisely the facilitation and support to women senior leaders they need. So, whether you are struggling to address burnout, restructuring your organization for the new normal, or addressing the next challenge for your company head-on, you can rely on a confidential network of peers to help you be the best leader possible. Learn more about EWF International’s Executive Women’s Forum