COVID-19: The great workplace equaliser?
Ama Afrifa-Tchie urges organisations to consider the mental health of minority groups who have been severely affected by the pandemic’s impact on working practices.
The lockdown measures announced on 23 March 2020 have drastically changed our lives. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people to work from home, often for the first time, and many offices have had to rethink their entire way of working.
Remote working has become the norm for many. We see more of one another’s lives through the lens of virtual video-conferencing. From young children pottering into view, to cats tapping across the keyboard, and partners making lunch in the background – we catch glimpses into our colleague’s home lives.
But what has become clearer than ever, is that our home lives and remote working experiences vastly differ.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created social, economic, and health uncertainties and insecurities – and exacerbated inequalities for many. This is particularly true for the experience of women. Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England has conducted research with over 2,000 employees that highlights stark differences in the experiences of those who identify as men and women, and the impact of COVID-19 on their workplace mindset.
Remote working could risk setting back the clock on gender equality owing to a number of factors, ranging from having to manage childcare responsibilities to workplace confidence
Over double the number of women employees (68%), compared to men (31%), said their workplace confidence had decreased due to the pandemic. And many more women (64%) than men (36%) reported an increase in feelings of loneliness or feelings of isolation during COVID-19.
Research shows remote working could risk setting back the clock on gender equality owing to a number of factors, ranging from having to manage childcare responsibilities to workplace confidence.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies report shows that younger women aged 25-34 and working mothers have been hit the hardest by the economic impact of COVID-19, with working mothers nearly 50% more likely than working fathers to have lost their job or quit.
As we start to transition out of lockdown and think about how workplace policies might change, employers must consider how they will continue to support and protect the mental health and wellbeing of their whole workforce and act to prevent a worsening gender gap.
Creating an inclusive culture
In 2021, we shouldn't have to leave parts of our identity behind – be that our gender identity, cultural or ethnic background, sexuality, disability, or health.
The highest performing workplaces are supportive and inclusive. Employers must create workplace cultures where women can voice their ideas, thoughts, and concerns without fear or judgement. A one size fits all approach will not work – black women and women of colour face unique obstacles and barriers, as will people with disabilities or those from the LGBT+ community.
For instance, women of colour are more likely than white women to feel they must compromise their authenticity if they want to be leaders.
Providing visible support
The nation faces a mental health crisis in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. More people than ever will need mental health and wellbeing support. Employers can help by driving a positive transformation in workplace mental health and performance through bringing together diversity and inclusion with health and wellbeing.
This support needs to be visible so that all employees know what support is available to them and how to access it. Regular wellbeing catch-ups with colleagues are a vital way to support people’s mental health, especially as remote working continues.
Creating a safe space for staff to speak openly about their mental health and wellbeing will help women to ask for support if they are experiencing issues such as poor mental health or struggling to manage their work-life balance.
As lockdown measures begin to ease, employers should continue to offer flexible working arrangements. This might look like allowing staff to shift their working day by a few hours. Statistics show that women are more likely to be single parents than men, and are nearly 1.5 times as likely to feel a greater childcare burden than men as a result of the impact of the pandemic.
Flexible working arrangements can help women to better plan their working weeks and feel confident that they can adjust their working hours if responsibilities change. Employers need to make the guidelines for flexible working clear, and conversations should be had with individual employees about what works best for them.
In light of the challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to shift the dial on workplace culture and wellbeing, and ensure that diversity and inclusion is at its centre. Workplaces play a key role in creating a society where everyone’s mental health matters, and so all women should feel empowered and supported to bring their whole selves to work now and in the future.
For more advice on how to create an inclusive workplace culture and support employees with their mental health and wellbeing, visit https://mhfaengland.org/my-whole-self/resources/
About the author
Ama Afrifa-Tchie is head of culture and wellbeing at Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England.
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