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Mar 8, 2022

Today is International Women’s Day – not that many of the millions of US working women will probably know much about it.

They’re too busy holding down jobs, holding down families and potentially holding down extra caring responsibilities for their aging parents. For according to a UK study by University College London, published in the journal Work, Employment and Society, women spend more than 20 hours a week on chores than men – and you can bet your bottom dollar this is a worldwide trend.

But it’s a trend that also a problem. Because all these extra hours contribute to burnout – something which research now shows disproportionately impacts women rather than men.

A recent study from Montreal University followed more than 2,000 workers for four years, detailing their emotional exhaustion, cynicism and professional effectiveness. The results, published in Annals of Work Exposures and Health, revealed that women were not only more vulnerable to burnout than men (because of the extra hours they put in), but also because women felt they had less authority and were less likely to feel able to call the shots. This, claimed the research, resulted in increased frustration and stress and diminished wellbeing.

Burnout risks business continuity

Statistics like this matter. The World Health Organization has now classified burnout as an official medical disorder and has included it in its International Classification of Diseases. And, as US firm Mavenlink recently found out, a third of employees now say they plan to change jobs precisely due to burnout.

If organisations don’t get to grips with this, and recognize the fact that many of their female staff are almost permanently on the brink of burnout, there is bound to be a retention catastrophe waiting to happen.

Already the cracks are beginning to be seen, in terms of the numbers of women being forced out of their jobs in order to cope.

US Census data shows there were nearly 1.5 million fewer mothers with children 18 or younger in the workforce in March 2021 compared to February 2020.

Covid has made things worse

Firms really need to act, because things have only gotten worse due to Covid. According to a recent report by CNBC, 14% of women said they considered quitting their job during the coronavirus pandemic because of the overwhelming pressure to be an employee, teacher and parent all at once. This was according to a survey of nearly 1,500 employees from HR analytics company Syndio.

In addition to this, last year McKinsey published its ‘Women in the Workplace’ report, and found that the gap between women and men who say they are burned out has nearly doubled in the last year. In the survey (which polled more than 65,000 North American employees), 42% of women and 35% of men reported feeling burned out ‘often’ or ‘almost always’ in 2021. This compares to 32% of women and 28% of men in 2020.

In a podcast earlier this year talking about the results of the report, McKinsey partner, Alexis Krivkovich, revealed that one in three women and 60% of mothers with young children spend five or more hours a day on housework and caregiving. Because of this they worry about being penalized at work for the ‘hangover’ effect this creates.

One of the answers has to be HRDs providing more flexible working. It’s worth noting that women hold 76% of all health-care jobs in the U.S., and 85% of nursing roles, so if flexibility isn’t on the menu, these professions and others could soon suffer huge problems from women simply quitting.

Greater flexibility is needed

The good news is that data suggests flexible working good for employers and good for employees too. Job ads mentioning flexibility have been shown to boost applications by up to 30%, while workers hired on this basis will repay managers with greater engagement and productivity.

But according to EY, American employers still have ‘commitment issues’ around flexible working. Last September it found that while 79% of companies intend to make moderate to extensive hybrid work changes, only 40% have communicated their plans to their workforce. Says Liz Fealy, EY global people advisory services deputy leader and workforce advisory leader: “Many organizations seem to have commitment issues around flexible working – they know they need to adapt but are holding back on implementing any firm plans.”

So perhaps this International Women’s Day, more HRDs should pause, reflect, and take the opportunity to ask themselves what they’re doing to support their female employees. If they really thought about it hard, they might come to the conclusion that they should have done much more already.