The “Care Crisis” Is a Workplace Crisis

“I feel like we had a lot of conversations, and moms were very honest about how stressed we are and how burned out we are, and nothing has changed from a policy level, from a public health standpoint.”

This quote comes from a working mother featured in a recent NBC News article about the role of burnout — chronic stress across personal and professional lives — that has many women considering leaving their jobs. According to the study featured in this piece, “Fifty-three percent of women reported stress levels higher than they were a year ago.”

The depths of the pandemic produced some of the rawest reporting on the experience of women in a country with few social policies, such as affordable childcare or paid family leave, to support equity in the workforce (or even just a humane and sustainable life). And while many of us experienced deep gratification at finally seeing these stories told, it’s unclear whether they made any difference to the people with the power to make changes. Though business leaders and policymakers have tinkered around the edges, they have not shown many signs that they plan to make radical changes to the structures that create all this stress.

In addition to the problems around childcare, one of the major causes of burnout is the extraordinary and long-term stress caused by lack of affordable care for older and disabled adults. The need to provide care for others — children and adults — keeps at least 6.6 million people out of the workforce.

“The pandemic added an extra layer of challenges to the already tenuous arrangements many families had in place to care for aging parents, sick spouses and disabled siblings. As nursing homes went into shutdowns or weathered outbreaks, many families took elderly parents home to care for themselves. At the same time, a growing shortage of workers — both in nursing homes and home-care settings — has made it more difficult to secure outside help.”

At some point, almost every family will face the challenge of providing eldercare, and yet we treat each occurrence almost as a surprise. In most cases, it is women who provide this essential care, and the best anyone seems able to say to them is, “I’m sure you’ll figure something out. You always do!”

If you run a firm or manage a department, it’s very likely you have employees at all levels of the organization who are struggling with care challenges. And while it would be nice to help them out of the kindness of your heart, that doesn’t even need to be the motivation. Holding on to talent is tougher than ever right now. Offering one or more of the supports below is in the best interest of your organization.

 

  • Talk about your own care responsibilities. Normalize taking time away from work to deal with them.

  • Audit the language around your flexible scheduling policy to ensure it is inclusive of all kinds of care, not just parenting. Communicate clearly about this policy internally.

  • Consider implementing “ramp down/ramp up” policies for when employees need to take leave. Protect their performance evaluations and compensation from penalties associated with that time away.

  • Adjust how you evaluate resumes that include gaps in work history. In many cases, these are due to care responsibilities and should not reflect poorly on the candidate.

  • Do right by people. Be flexible and understanding. Treat them the way you would want to be treated if you were stuck between a rock and a hard place.