The Work-From-Home Status Quo Is Stress-Inducing for Working Mothers. 3 Ways to Make It Less So

By: | October 16, 2020

Terri L. Rhodes is CEO of the Disability Management Employer Coalition. Terri was an Absence and Disability Management Consultant for Mercer, and also served as Director of Absence and Disability for Health Net and Corporate IDM Program Manager for Abbott Laboratories.

The separation of work and life, or what we used to call “work/life balance,” is blurred today. Working from home has doubled or tripled in some cases, and it appears on the surface to be a gain as commuting time is reduced and interactions and dress codes are more relaxed. Many employees report they would like to continue working remotely all, or at least most, of the time.

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There are also advantages for employers. For example, Heidrick & Struggles, a leading executive-search firm, recently announced it will reduce its U.S. real estate footprint of about 230,000 square feet across 15 offices. The company is looking to combine offices, downsize, or shutter certain locations in a bid to save millions and boost efficiency. Similar stories from other companies indicate this same trend.

But there can also be downsides for both employers and employees.

For employers, training can be more difficult without the proper technology, and it’s still not clear what impact remote work will have on innovation and long-term productivity.

For employees, most surveys indicate that remote workers are generally putting in more hours. Whatever time has been gained in reduced commuting is “lost” in additional work time — often on evenings and weekends.

Even more challenging for remote workers is childcare. According to the Center for American Progress, 1 in 4 childcare providers have lost their jobs since January, and as many as half of all childcare slots could be lost with centers closing.

That means parents — and especially women — are juggling work and caring for children at home. When home schooling activities and varying school schedules/procedures are tossed into the mix, the situation is even more stressful. This challenge looms especially large for women.

The reality is that most childcare and school activities —and its attendant worries — still fall primarily on women in most situations.

In a 2020 Northwestern University study, economists found, among married parents who both work full time, that women are spending 40% more time on childcare than men during the pandemic. Studies also indicate women spend more time caring for aging parents. Both of these trends create real concern about the long-term effects of remote work on women and equity.

This could lead to at least a partial return to more “traditional” gender roles, which could be a step back for women, and ultimately, for employers and the global economy. There is evidence that confirms female workplace participation is a key determinant of economic development and social progress.

Businesses need to be aware of the pandemic’s disruptions to work-life balance for women and ensure there are not long-term setbacks to standards of living and social progress.

There is no blueprint for how to do this, and organizations are working through it as they go along. However, there are some steps that can help to address this evolving situation.

1) Flexible Schedules

Work is not where you go, but what you do. This means that the traditional work schedule — designed for factories and applied to offices — makes less sense in a world in which most of an organization’s employees are working at home.

Most employees want to do good work, and more freedom to perform that work when they are undistracted and focused is good for everyone.

This may mean working earlier or later in a normal day, depending on customer demands and other variables. Flexible scheduling is the first step toward maintaining a talented, engaged, and productive workforce.

2) Childcare Assistance

Prior to the pandemic, many organizations were introducing some type of childcare benefits. This included onsite care.

As that option is no longer feasible in the near-term, employers are substituting assistance to help employees find in-home caregiving services — including services for aging parents.

Employers are also experimenting with benefits focused around education. For example, some companies offer services that help parents find tutors for children. One could foresee similar assistance focused on physical activity and other recreation not currently provided by schools.

3) Networking

One of the main reason cities have boomed over the past few decades is the “network effect.” People interact in both planned and random ways. This spurs ideas and innovation and opens avenues for collaboration. This results in higher productivity, growth, and business creation. More people move to dynamic areas, which leads to more new ideas, productivity, and growth.

Large-scale remote work could short-circuit this “networking effect.” Working at home can be isolating, and it can take on an added dimension when 24/7 childcare is thrown into the mix.

Layer on reduced or even eliminated business travel, and an employee’s world can dramatically shrink. No one wins when employees aren’t engaged in learning through the life-broadening, innovation-driving daily interactions that have defined normal work life.

To counterbalance this shrinking environment, employers can proactively provide suggestions to “get out of the house.”

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Whether that looks like something as simple as taking walks during scheduled one-on-one meetings or widening employees’ horizons through creative substitutes for business travel, employers need to spur new ideas and raise questions about better ways to get work done.

Given their caregiving roles, it’s especially important for female employees to have these opportunities, which play a large role in career advancement.

Increased remote work is likely here to stay. It would be tragic if its potential upsides were diminished by the downside risks, especially for women.

Public policy will play the key role in ensuring that women’s economic and social gains continue. However, employers can also do their part to help female employees balance work and home life. &

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]