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Women, Burnout, the Pandemic and the Crisis in the Workforce

Helen is an executive at a financial services firm and is one of its most prized employees. Over the past decade, this high potential leader has given the company everything they could possibly ask for. Her brand is “contributor.” Helen’s work is exceptional, Leadership has her ear, and her team likes and respects her. She is a mid-six-figure earner—quite an accomplishment for a thirty-five-year-old.

She’s not only a Vice President; Helen is also a wife and a mother of three, all under the age of seven. She has a very supportive partner who most decidedly does not handle the father role as though he is merely a babysitter.

When the pandemic arrived, Helen’s nanny needed to quarantine, the exclusive pre-school her children attended shut its doors, and her support system became inaccessible. No problem, this leader said, my husband and I will work out a schedule that works for all of us.

One year later, Helen is about to become a statistic.

Her significant salary, abundant stock options, and unlimited vacation can’t come close to compensating her for her stress, burnout, and fatigue. Helen is on the brink—her words, not mine.

I have been her executive leadership coach since last April. I have seen her take on projects that would make the strongest leader quiver. This month was the first time I heard Helen say, “I can’t take it anymore. Senior Leadership is moving forward with

strategies developed pre-pandemic. Why aren’t they revising this a bit in this time of covid, political uncertainty, school closures, absence of childcare, homeschooling and this unsustainable workload?” I didn’t have an answer for her.

Helen is not alone.

Women account for 86.3% of jobs lost in December 2020- 196,000 jobs, while men gained 16,000 jobs. I share these statistics only to emphasize the gender disparity of the pandemic’s toll on women in our country.

In January 2021, another 275,000 women dropped out of the labor force, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

More than 2.3 million women have left the workforce since February 2020,

bringing their labor participation rate to levels not seen since 1988.

Mothers who were already working a double shift now spend twenty or more hours a week than their husbands on housework and childcare.

PwC recently released a report in which they’ve concluded that losing women from the workforce “not only reverses progress towards gender equality, but it also affects economic growth.”

Recently, the Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris, said, “Women leaving the workforce in these numbers is a national emergency, and it deserves a national solution.”

How do we expect our economy to recover unless women can participate fully?

Their departure is a crisis so let’s not call it anything else (like that lipstick on a pig idea.)

Okay. So, we know the problem. What do we do?

Senior leaders can address the coming crisis preemptively, or they can wait, and, like taxes, they will pay interest and penalties such as attrition, poor workforce morale, and disengagement.

I have had many conversations over the last year with senior Leadership in Fortune 500 companies. They are, inevitably, white men.

I give them the data, present the research, share the proverbial water-cooler conversations. What do they say?

“This doesn’t apply to our organization. Our numbers are good. Our female leaders tell us they’re fine.” “Women are leaving at the same rate as men.”

Okay, guys. Ask yourself what happens when you ask her how she is doing at home, suspecting that something might not be quite right. (She could also be a he, and or they.)

She says, “I’m fine,” which seldom means “I’m fine.” It usually means, “I’m not ready to talk about it, or I’m scared, or I’m angry, or I’m disappointed.” For women in the workforce to say anything other than “I’m fine” is often perceived as a sign of weakness. They are afraid of losing the leadership ground they fought so hard to gain.

If she’s a senior leader, she’s even a higher flight risk. Women are held to a different and significantly higher standard of performance than their male counterparts. With the pressure of the pandemic, a half-time job in addition to her full-time position, the exact expectations as pre-pandemic, no wonder their stress level is increasing their level of depression, anxiety, and burnout.

According to the McKinsey Report, Women in the Workplace, few “companies have taken steps to adjust the norms and expectations that are most likely responsible for employee stress and burnout.

Less than a third of companies have adjusted their performance review criteria to account for the challenges created by the pandemic, and only about half have updated employees on their plans for performance reviews or their productivity expectations during COVID-19.”

“That means many employees—especially parents and caregivers—are facing the choice between falling short of pre-pandemic expectations that may now be unrealistic or pushing themselves to keep up an unsustainable pace.”

We have a reality gap. Or do we?

Senior Leadership is telling us that there isn’t a problem with women in their company.

The women in the same companies are reporting that they’re

overloaded, stressed out, burned out, and on the brink.

That’s an astonishing gap.

  • What do YOU think is causing that gap?
  • What are you hearing?
  • What are your instincts telling you?

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We need your voice.

Should you have a question or an opinion you don’t want to publicly share, please message me or email me at nancy@theleadershipincubator.com.