Our fears were realized. Women in the workforce have left at alarming rates.

A year after my post on the difficulties working mothers were facing at the beginning of the pandemic, more women in the workforce than I could have imagined have left.

Women in the workforce

According to a March 2021 U.S. Census Bureau survey, women made up roughly 80% of those who left the workforce at the onset of the pandemic in 2020. Similarly, a study conducted by Indeed found that 29% of women working full-time before the pandemic have reduced their hours and nine percent of women left the workforce altogether. As a result, women’s participation in the workforce today is the lowest it has been in three decades, particularly for women of color.

The last 18 months have been some of the most challenging for many of us. As a wife, daughter, sister and mother, I constantly worried about the health and safety of my family, in addition to my own. As a woman in the workforce, I grieved as I watched women leave in droves, because someone needed to be the caregiver. As a human, I missed socializing and seeing friends beyond the walls of my home. While the pandemic work life indiscriminately affected all, it disproportionately affected women.

A major deciding factor for women leaving was school and daycare closures, which forced mothers to move to part-time work or quit entirely to care for their children. Over the last year and a half, I have been fortunate to maintain full-time work, thanks to my amazing support network, including my employer, Ketchum.

Caregiving alone is not always the sole reason. Other considerations are driving women to make the difficult decision of stepping away. Two stand out to me in particular: mental health and workplace culture.

Total Brain, a self-monitoring mental health platform, found that 83% of women reported a notable increase in depression due to the pandemic. While women have been greatly affected, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that mothers are more likely to seek mental health treatment (68%) than women without children (47%). The stressors affecting mothers cover a broad spectrum, including anxiety about change, fear of COVID-19, work issues, lack of childcare support, isolation and countless others. The bottom line is — women do not always have the support they need. If left without help, their job performance and engagement may suffer and further worsen their stress.

Employed women are disproportionately affected by mental health issues, often because too much is being asked of them. The insightful Forbes article I cited earlier confirmed my suspicions, as this excerpt reveals: “According to [a] McKinsey study, more women than men report exhaustion, burnout and pressure to work more.” In addition, a study by My Perfect Resume found 75% of women—compared with 59% of men—”felt their employer expected them to always be on.” The article later explains that mothers also face the so-called “maternal bias,” a conscious or subconscious belief that a working mom cannot also be an effective employee. Obviously, this is false.

But burnout is real. Per the Harvard Business Review, women in senior-level jobs feel the need to work harder and longer hours. Because of this and the perception that working mothers’ caregiving responsibilities will harm their performance more than fathers, women feel burnout 11% more than men.

So, what can company leaders do to help women in the workplace? It is my firm belief that keeping women in the workforce starts with improving support in these four ways:

  • Pay attention to the burnout being felt by your employees and peers and do something about it. Offer to take some work off their plate or add to their team. Encourage them to take time off. Don’t send emails to your colleagues at all hours of the night.
  • Prioritize mental health support. Extend empathy to your colleagues. Normalize awkward or difficult conversations. Take a look at your company benefits and make sure mental health support is well represented.
  • Reward those who have stuck it out with you through the last year and a half and helped your company’s performance. Give thoughtful bonuses and promotions and ensure gender equity in your company’s pay.
  • Focus on recruiting women back into the workforce by offering a workplace culture that makes it enticing for them to return.

When women leave the workforce, we all suffer. By taking these and other thoughtful steps that consider their particular needs, we can hopefully bring them back where they belong – as a vital part of the working world.

Laura joined Ketchum eight years ago and has 15 years of marketing communications agency experience. She is a leader in our Health Services industry and serves as the marketplace lead for our Raleigh office. Shas built her agency muscle directing accounts to focus on big-picture, insights-driven brand marketing and communications. She excels at integrated brand marketing, brand positioning and messaging, and content and digital marketing. Laura brings an invaluable ability to keep on top of each detail while also helping the team to think big and plan strategic marketing and communications that resonate with the audience and deliver real value on their behalf. She also makes it a priority to build and foster lasting relationships with her clients, believing it drives better results. Laura received her bachelor’s in journalism and mass communications with a focus in advertising, along with a double major in psychology, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When not behind the computer, Laura is raising two young, amazing kids with her husband in Raleigh, NC.