1 in 4 Women Are Considering Career Shifts — Including Leaving Workforce — Over Burnout: Study

One-quarter of women in the workforce are thinking about downshifting or quitting thanks to unprecedented stresses sparked by the coronavirus pandemic, a new study found.

Though representation of women in corporate America was slowly improving, COVID-19 has seriously impeded the progress, particularly for women of color, according to this year’s annual report from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and McKinsey & Co.

One in four women are contemplating downshifting or leaving the workforce, and among mothers who reported thinking of those options, a majority cite childcare responsibilities as the primary reason.

“There were times when I said to my husband, ‘One of us is going to have to quit our job,’” an Asian-American senior manager and mom of two young children said in the report. “And I remember thinking, ‘How come I’m the only one thinking about this, and my husband isn’t?’ I don’t think him leaving was ever in question.”

The report listed several predictive factors that might explain why an employee would consider leaving, including a lack of flexibility at work, feeling like they need to be “always on” at all hours and housework and caregiving burdens because of coronavirus.

As for the last factor, the report found that mothers are more likely than fathers to be spending an extra 20 hours a week on housework and childcare.

Additionally, many women said they felt anxiety over layoffs or furloughs, and burnt out over the fact that many companies have not adjusted performance norms and expectations amid the pandemic.

In previous years, the rates of women and men saying they may want to leave the workforce were similar; this is the first year that women responded so at a higher rate than men.

Meanwhile, the report also found that women — in particular women of color — were also more likely to have been laid off or furloughed during the crisis. Additionally, many Black women said they did not feel they had sufficient allies in the workplace, and fewer than one in three Black women reported having a manager check in on them in light of recent racial violence.

In an Instagram post announcing the findings, Sandberg said that companies are at risk of “wiping out all the gains women have made in management” since the report began six years ago.

“If we had a panic button, we’d be hitting it,” she wrote. “Companies must act fast to reduce burnout, make work more sustainable, and avoid a crisis that could set women and workplaces back years.”

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One in four women are now considering leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers because of Covid-19. That’s the startling headline from this year’s #WomenInTheWorkplace report, which @leaninorg and @mckinseyco are releasing today. It reveals that companies are at risk of losing up to 2 million women—wiping out all the gains women have made in management since the survey began six years ago. If we had a panic button, we’d be hitting it. Why are so many women on the brink of making major changes to their professional lives? Because Covid-19 has put huge burdens on their shoulders. Many are burned out, exhausted, and seriously asking whether they can keep going. Working moms were already working a double shift of work and caregiving before the pandemic. Now their childcare and housework responsibilities have skyrocketed. Mothers are more likely than fathers to be spending an extra 20 hours a week on housework and childcare. That’s half a full-time job. Senior-level women are dealing with increased pressure at home and work; women are typically held to higher performance standards and blamed more for failure, so when the stakes are high, like they are now, women leaders are more likely than men to be judged harshly. Working from home has blurred the lines between work and home, making many employees feel “always on,” like they must be available to work 24/7. And on top of all that, Black women are also carrying the emotional toll of the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the Black community and incidents of racist violence across the country. Companies must act fast to reduce burnout, make work more sustainable, and avoid a crisis that could set women and workplaces back years. This is also an opportunity. Making work sustainable, supportive, and inclusive isn’t just a way to help employees get through this crisis. It’s the foundation for a better workplace after Covid-19 is over. Corporate America is at a crossroads. The choices companies make today will shape the future for women and everyone.

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Six key areas were highlighted in the report as places where companies should increase their focus and expand their efforts: make work more sustainable, reset norms around flexibility, take a close look at performance reviews, take steps to minimize gender bias, adjust policies and programs to better support employees and strengthen employee communication.

Two specific calls to action were also laid out for Black women’s workplaces as well: address the distinct challenges Black women face head-on, and foster a culture that supports and values Black women.

“Some companies may think that worrying about employee burnout is a luxury they can’t afford right now,” Sandberg and Lean In CEO Rachel Thomas wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “In fact, it’s mission-critical. If companies rise to the moment, they can head off the disaster of losing millions of women and setting gender diversity back years. They can also lay the groundwork for a better future beyond Covid-19."

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