Women have made great strides in equality in the workforce, finally attaining more than half the working population before the pandemic hit a year ago. Suddenly, decades of progress are being threatened not just by a global virus but a system that’s long failed women: childcare.
Even in 2021, women are still handling most of the childcare and housework, and most organizations don’t provide enough—or any—childcare services. So when COVID-19 caused offices, schools, and daycares to shutter overnight, the effect on women was devastating.
According to a McKinsey report, 76% of mothers with children under 10 report that childcare is one of their top three challenges, while 54% of fathers say the same. Significantly more women have considered reducing their work hours (17%), switching to a less demanding job (16%), or taking a leave of absence (15%) due to pandemic burdens compared to only 9% to 11% of men.
At the rate women are trying to care for loved ones and balance working from home, burnout becomes inevitable. In a Limeade report, only a quarter of women felt “extremely comfortable” asking for a wellness day off, compared to 60% of men. One-third of female managers feared they would lose their job, possibly because of a perceived lack of productivity. Only 26% of men indicated the same fear.
And some did leave the workforce. Four times more women (about two million) are out of a job compared to this time last year.
Mass Mutual adds PTO
Those organizations that are working to address this workforce crisis take a variety of approaches, some focusing on all employees in general, and others with an emphasis specifically in the childcare and caregiver categories. The Springfield, Massachusetts-based insurance company MassMutual, for example, offers its 6,000 employees time off, flexible working arrangements and family-leave policies, but with the demands that COVID-19 restrictions placed on its employees, it knew it needed to do more.
“The creativity of working parents and caregivers has been stretched to new levels, and MassMutual believes that employers need to step up and acknowledge the extreme lengths that people are taking to attend to their loved ones and all of their responsibilities,” MassMutual spokeswoman Chelsea Haraty says.
The company added 80 hours of additional pandemic-related paid time-off in 2020, and up to 40 hours this year. The company’s employees are majority female, and one-third of its executive leadership team is women. Last year, about 80% of employees took advantage of the benefit. To get its wellness offerings to its remote workers, the company provided online fitness classes, webinars on stress, and meditation programs to its employees.
Women are typically the caregiver for sick or elderly parents. Acknowledging this burden, MassMutual extended its caregiver benefits in 2019. The policy offers two weeks of paid leave for employees to provide care for anyone the employee designates as a loved one. “We have taken active listening to a whole new level during the pandemic,” Haraty says. “Hearing what employees need has been a lifeline through this most unusual time to help inform plans and decisions so that our employees are supported where their home and work lives are blended more than ever.”
Harvard’s teaching hospital leans in for its female physicians
Frontline healthcare workers have been feeling the effects of burnout for some time. And then the pandemic hit and things got much worse. And while the pandemic was hard on all medical workers, including doctors, women were harder hit with expected childcare and caregiver duties while still trying to achieve career goals in this competitive environment.
The team at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the Boston-based teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, has acutely felt the impact. “Research suggests women have a bigger burden to carry as it relates to childcare, schooling, tutoring, all the things our physicians faced during the pandemic,” says Nanette Smith Callihan, chief human resources officer at Harvard Medical Faculty Physicians, the organization that employs the hospital’s nearly 2,000 physicians. “In addition to their concerns about health and safety and all the stressors that go with the pandemic, they had childcare, schooling, tutoring. All those things fell on them. We also heard that taking care of elderly parents tends to fall on them.”
No one understands that better than the members of HMFP’s all-female executive team. They acted quickly to extend childcare benefits through Care.com and Bright Horizons, with extended and subsidized childcare services. The team added concierge services from Care.com for pet walking, backup childcare, and tutoring support.
To keep all the new resources organized, HMFP’s HR team created a child and family newsletter that listed in one place all the resources and benefits available to employees. It added a new HR hub on the intranet for easy access. Whether it was looking for a tutor, elder care, or a webinar, the child and family services section covered it.
One additional benefit that was added but proved unpopular was a supplemental child and family leave benefit. Callihan said women in particular indicated that wasn’t what they wanted. Instead, they wanted support in their professional role as a physician. “They’re very driven,” says Callihan. “They’re very committed to their patients. Some of them do research and had deadlines they needed to meet in order to submit their publications. So, they didn’t want the time off.”
HMFP had twice before run pilot programs to test how to avoid physician burnout, with some promising results. Findings showed women were experiencing a higher rate of burnout compared to their male peers. Among that group, younger women of childbearing age were more overwhelmed than older women. The team decided to try the family-leave program again in 2022, but the pandemic changed that. Instead of waiting, the hospital received a grant from the American Medical Association for $130,000 to run a research study on how best to support overwhelmed employees.
The research revealed meal delivery, laundry services, and other concierge benefits were the most desired benefits. So HMFP created a LiveWell program that ran from January to March of this year. One tool was a Slack group where physicians could pool their resources and ask questions. About 350 employees engaged in the effort, 212 (or 61%) of them women—often looking for childcare-related help.
A survey planned for April will gather results. HMFP will measure the level of burnout against the results from the other pilot programs. Callihan says HMFP plans to continue the benefits they put in place for pandemic burdens and add new ones. She thinks the hospital will prioritize childcare benefits and mental wellbeing resources as it supports all physicians with burnout. “I think there’s going to continue to be a big impact on women,” says Callihan. “[The pandemic has] changed things for years to come.”
Accounting firm DHG addresses childcare needs
At the Charlotte, North Carolina-based accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman, the transition to remote work was jarring. The offices closed overnight on March 13th last year, and the workforce went 100% remote. It was a transition for everyone, but especially for its working parents and women, says managing director of human resources, Katrina Thompson. “Daycares, schools, summer camps, all abruptly closed,” Thompson says. “So, suddenly those working parents were faced with three jobs: teacher, parent, and employee. Public accounting is a demanding profession anyway. It really just exacerbated the stress.”
Of the firm’s 2,200 associates, half of whom are women. And of those, nearly 40% are working mothers. To help them with the new demands, DHG ended up overhauling several benefits. It created an entirely new EAP, switched childcare providers and designed a training guide for its managers to better understand flexibility. Its move to a new childcare provider was innovative and proved popular among working parents. Before the pandemic, DHG used a traditional provider that brought people into employees’ homes. But with fears of contracting COVID-19, no one was using it.
So the firm switched to Helpr, a provider that connected employees to extended family members or friends in their pandemic bubble and choose who would care for their children in their home. DHG subsidizes the care. Helpr also offers an extensive online platform of tutors and group educational activities. DHG funds up to 150 hours a year, so parents can get some work time in knowing their children are occupied.
A quarter of DHG’s working parents with young children have taken advantage of Helpr, for a total of 4,000 hours of care.
Another benefit that helps female employees is a contract with Cariloop, a caregiver concierge service. It facilitates employees finding caregiver solutions in a variety of situations. Thompson says several employees found it helpful.
Between the two care-related benefits, DHG saw a 9.5% usage rate for the first six months. Thompson says she expects that number to go up as high as 20% by the end of the first year. The rates are higher than either vendor expected, so DHG is happy with the results.
One benefit that fell flat was a mentorship program that DHG set up to help connect experienced working parents with those looking for help with work/life balance ideas and facilitate learning. Thompson thinks it may have gotten lost in the rollout of benefits, but DHG may try to push it again soon.
Company surveys showed employees were floundering over the summer with the burdens of work and childcare. A fall survey showed an uptick in satisfaction after the new benefits were put in place. After the lessons learned from remote working and supporting employees, Thompson says DHG will be keeping the benefits changes. “I think the real measure of success will be when we return to some semblance of normal and we’re able to continue to provide a strong degree of flexibility for our working parents and all team members,” Thompson says.