A year and a half into the pandemic, we’re well aware our collective mental health has taken a dip. For many women, it’s been a plunge.

For parity in the workplace and beyond, it’s well established that equal distribution of care-taking duties is necessary. On a global level, this achievement is far away. “Women are on the front lines here; they do an average of 75 per cent of the world’s total unpaid-care work.” This keeps women out of the workforce and leadership positions. 

Unshockingly, the pandemic has exacerbated this problem. Across 10 countries, “Roughly 8 in 10 women reported increased workload since the pandemic began, as well as increased responsibilities at home.” In terms of unemployment, “Women make up 39 per cent of global employment but account for 54 per cent of overall job losses” that have occurred during COVID. 

The causes are mixed, but the message is clear: women’s employment is less stable than men’s. The brunt of the pandemic and the extra load that women have taken on has had a marked effect on mental health. In a survey conducted in the United States, women were “1.5 times more likely to report mental health as a challenge as compared with men”. These results are reflected in Australia 

Support for Mental Health

We have a responsibility to everyone to focus on mental health in the workplace. In terms of the bottom line, the “Australian Productivity Commission estimates that mental health conditions cost Australian workplaces AU $17 billion every year through absenteeism and lost productivity”. In terms of the human impact, the people in our lives, and particularly the women, are struggling. 

They deserve companies that support them.

In broad strokes, this means empathic managers, diverse leadership, ongoing and increased flexibility, and an exploration of tools, both digital and traditional, to support employees. There needs to be a clear culture of support and inclusion across the board.

There also needs to be an assessment of care-taking, both in and out of the office. 

The Double Shift

For women, the burden of the “double shift” is enough to currently cause “one in four women in corporate jobs to consider downshifting her career or leaving the workforce”.

In part, companies can take a look at their remote work policies, ensuring that women aren’t negatively impacted if they choose to continue remote work in the future. Post-pandemic, offices need to avoid on-site favouritism, ensuring that employees who need to work from home or who are more comfortable doing so can without missing the best assignments. Companies need to assess output rather than availability. Meetings need to be scheduled at a time that takes everyone into consideration and short-term sabbaticals should be provided, along with greater support for caregiving across genders. 

But companies also need to take a look at the care-taking that happens within their own walls. For many women, there’s a third shift occurring.

The Triple 

Although much of the focus is geared towards children or sick family members, care-taking happens within the office as well. Even away from home, women don’t escape expectations that they “take care of emotional needs” and “any social activities in the workplace”.

Whether it’s washing the mugs left in the sink or organising a birthday gift, women are often left with in-office caring responsibilities that take up their time and don’t contribute to their careers. A study back in 2013 showed that “men volunteered less and women were shouldered with more” when genders were mixed. When left to their own devices, men are, of course, capable. But when women enter the equation, men simply hand the slack over. 

Women are often the emotional backbone, supporting their employers with soft skills that keep the office functioning and its culture healthy. And as we saw in the poll I recently posted, a toxic workplace is the number one reason people would quit their job.

However, these efforts aren’t measurable and they don’t produce greater parity in leadership. They do, however, add to the already hefty burden that women are shouldering, trying to balance family, work and a pandemic. 

And while larger shifts towards inclusive and healthy workplaces are the employer’s responsibility, the entire office needs to take stock of who is carrying out the emotional labour and office housework. Are the hands that are going up there because they want to be, or because that’s how it’s always been?

If this isn’t something you’ve considered before, it’s a good time to start.