While the pandemic is disrupting the workforce in innumerable ways on multiple levels, women are increasingly bearing the brunt of it.
McKinsey’s 2021 Women in the Workplace survey finds that burnout is increasing at a significantly higher pace among women than it is among male workers – and as many as one-third are thinking of quitting or de-emphasizing their career. That’s a significant jump from just one year ago.
“One in three women says that they have considered downshifting their career or leaving the workforce this year, compared with one in four who said this a few months into the pandemic,” reads the report. “Additionally, four in ten women have considered leaving their company or switching jobs—and high employee turnover in recent months suggests that many of them are following through.”
The McKinsey survey, made in conjunction with LeanIn.org, is one of the most thorough looks at working women each year. This year’s report talked with 65,000 women from 423 organizations.
Top of mind for most of them was burnout. The gap between men and women suffering from burnout since the start of the pandemic has almost doubled in the past year. Some 42% of women say they have been often or almost always burned out in 2021, compared to 32% a year ago. The rate is just 35% for men this year.
“I probably cried more days than not,” one unnamed respondent who’s a senior VP, told McKinsey. “I felt caught in the middle of everyone’s emotional responses. I had to be the voice for a lot of different people, some of it was my job and some of it wasn’t. It was the hardest working year of my life.”
One of the most effective ways to address burnout is embracing flexibility in work schedules, allowing employees to take time off and step away when they need to. It’s critical, though, that “flexible” doesn’t morph into “always on” work. As people have worked from home for the past 18 months, too many have felt the need to be available 24/7, which has led to feelings of being overwhelmed.
Managers, also, are the first line of defense against burnout – and it’s critical that they both send the message that workers are not expected to be “always on” and monitor employees for signs of burnout, adjusting workloads when that looks to be a danger.
If the past year has been hard on women in general, it has been especially challenging for women of color. While recent events have elicited commitments to racial equality by many companies, the implementation of those promises, especially with women, has been somewhat lacking.
Women of color face the same microaggressions they did two years ago just as frequently, McKinsey found—and they remain far more likely than caucasian women to be on the receiving end of disrespectful and othering behavior. Similarly, caucasian women are no more likely than last year to speak out against discrimination, mentor or sponsor women of color, or take other actions to advocate for women of color.
Follow-through issues have been a hurdle in other areas, as well, which is, at least partially, why burnout remains so high. The study calls for companies to implement policies and dedicate resources to areas including on-site childcare, parental leave, and mental health services.
Some businesses have prioritized this in the pandemic, as managers better understand (sometimes first-hand) the challenges these issues present. Others, though, haven’t been as swift to act.
“There is no easy fix, so continued investment will be critical,” says the report. “In addition to maintaining the successful policies and programs they’ve put in place, companies should look for opportunities to expand on them and try new approaches. It’s also important that companies establish new norms and systems to improve employees’ everyday work experiences—even with all the right policies and programs, employees will continue to struggle if the cadence and expectations of their work feel untenable.”
There are some bright spots in the largely gloomy report. Women have made some small gains in the corporate pipeline, with a 5% rise in C-level jobs in the past five years and a 4% increase in manager positions. (Both, though, are still a long way from parity levels.)
Those at the management level are earning kudos from their workers, too, as they’re more likely to check in on overall well-being, provide emotional support and ensure that workloads are manageable. And they’re leading the way on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).