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It’s time to talk about the unintended consequences of flexible and hybrid work for women

The president of Barnard College offers two critical things employers should know about workplace burnout and why it demands more than a quick fix.

It’s time to talk about the unintended consequences of flexible and hybrid work for women
[Photo: Poike/iStock]
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With COVID cases falling and vaccination rates on the rise, employers are starting to talk about returning to normal—even if normal looks new. After the pandemic forced a global experiment in remote work, giants from Google to Ford Motors to the federal government are embracing hybrid schedules. And no wonder they feel the pressure. In a recent study, Microsoft found more than 70% of workers want remote work options. Another survey found as many as three in four said they would pick working from home over a $30,000 raise if given the choice. 

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With employers across sectors raising the alarm about labor shortages and difficulty finding skilled workers for jobs, offering flexibility seems like the obvious answer. Surely it would improve widespread employee burnout—especially among women, 65% of whom say the pandemic has made things worse for them at work.

Except, as a cognitive scientist who studies the effects of stress and burnout on women, I know it’s not that easy. Employers looking for real, lasting change for worker productivity, morale, and retention must look deeper than schedules alone—especially for their female employees. So, I offer two critical things employers should know about workplace burnout and why it demands more than a quick fix.

Flexible schedules can have unintended consequences for women

A recent study in the UK found remote workers were less likely to get bonuses or promotions and more likely to put in unpaid overtime or work late into the night. Flexible work can also increase loneliness and make it hard to unplug, leading to overwork and burnout.

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Cognizant of these challenges, some employers are taking steps to prevent the penalties and stressors of work from home. In shifting to hybrid scheduling, Microsoft is asking employees to schedule breaks in the day and encouraging managers to evaluate productivity broadly, not just in terms of immediate outputs.

But the real challenge of hybrid work is in its unintended consequences, especially if more women exercise the option than men—as many predict. So as workers re-enter the office, managers and employers must actively combat bias that favors in-person work and equitably distribute opportunities.

Stanford economist Nick Bloom, who advises companies on workplace issues, recommends employers create set days for everyone to be in the office as one way to prevent imbalance. Meanwhile, Zillow has established “core work hours” from 10 am to 2 pm when all meetings must occur, so working parents do not face penalties for being unavailable during school pick-ups and drop-offs.

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Burnout is a parity issue

Women and men do not experience burnout equally at work in large part because they do not shoulder responsibilities equally at home—especially if they are parenting children. Recent studies show women’s disparate burden adds up to 20 hours of additional domestic labor a week—the same as a part-time job. So, it should come as no surprise that studies have found roughly half the population of working women are stressed to the point of burnout—16 points higher than men.

Even among women, burnout is not equal opportunity. Years before COVID, Black and Latinx women reported being disproportionately affected compared to their white peers. And neuroscientists have found that racism in all its forms is a clear driver of toxic stress—the kind of serious mental strain that leads to increased risk of chronic disease and poor health.

The expectation that women will do more at home means women may be more inclined to choose a remote-work option. This is why remedies for burnout must go beyond flexible scheduling to address its root causes—and employers must look at the issue comprehensively.

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  • Do you have policies like wage transparency and parity?
  • If women at your workplace are disproportionately choosing hybrid schedules, what steps are you taking to ensure they aren’t missing out on opportunities for collaboration or new projects?
  • What are you doing to ensure women are in the pipeline for leadership—especially women of color, who are the least represented in these roles? 

These questions are simply a starting point. Make a formal commitment to an ongoing and collective discussion of the issue to address burnout in a meaningful way. There is no single quick-fix policy or town hall to be had that reverses long-entrenched norms, which means that no matter your good intentions, it’s inevitable that your initiatives will require correction.

This correction is not only okay, it’s a chance to point out to your employees that even the best-laid plans require iteration and that they can have a voice in the iterative process. And, when people feel like they have a say and control over their surroundings, feelings of burnout are often lessened. 

To move the dial on burnout, workplace flexibility should be one of many manifestations of a company’s commitment to inclusion and equity, not the only one. Without looking at the broader culture and policies of your workplace, even the best-intentioned ideas can backfire (especially for women)—and that’s something neither workers nor our economy can afford.

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Sian Beilock, PhD is a trained cognitive scientist and the president of Barnard College at Columbia University