Before Covid-19, working women in the UK were five times more likely than men to spend at least 20 hours a week on chores. This sobering stat has worsened as the line between home and the workplace has largely faded since the start of the pandemic.
Over the past year, women have been taking to social using #mentalload to voice their suggestions for how to improve work-life balance. Businesses should stop and listen to what the women themselves are saying before throwing themselves into new policy initiatives. They otherwise risk missing the mark, being ineffective or merely paying lip service towards helping female employees. Women themselves, after all, know best what they need. So what does social media tell us about how women are experiencing their daily grind?
‘You should’ve asked’
‘Mental load’ (defined as the burden associated with bearing accountability for the wellbeing of one’s household, one checklist/meal prep/tantrum at a time) is not just about doing more around the house. Nor is it about not getting help from one’s partner. Fundamentally, it’s about constantly having to anticipate and ask for it. One woman on Twitter notes that:
“It’s not just the doing of household tasks, but more importantly the noticing that they need to be done. It’s this #MentalLoad that #women carry much more than men. And which causes the greatest stress, ire and conflict.”
Most comment on the gendered nature of this conflict and how it’s part of a bigger societal picture where women tend to get a pretty rotten deal.
“The bulk of household chores in heterosexual couples is already borne by women – a situation exacerbated by the huge dislocations of the pandemic. #mentalload #women #pandemic #coronavirus”
Businesses respond to the ‘shecession’
Work-life balance often goes hand-in-hand with mental load -the healthier the balance, the lighter the load. Ensuring that businesses back new and improved policies regarding women’s working conditions is essential.
Indeed, women were already working three times as many unpaid hours as men before the pandemic. Now, according to the UN, this figure has at least doubled and threatens to wipe out 25 years of progress in gender equality.
This considerable leap backwards has been coined the ‘shecession’. In response, many workplaces have wasted no time addressing this one-in-a-decade opportunity for female (re)empowerment by actively looking to adapt their flexible work policies.
According to the Harvard Business Review, this move towards greater flexibility is not just a matter of magnanimity; plainly said, it is also about convincing great assets not to jump ship. Gone are the days where flexible working was wrongly perceived as “accommodation for working mothers who just couldn’t hack it” (as evidenced in this NPR piece).
While businesses getting on board with flexible working policies is nothing short of essential in order to lessen the mental load in the long run, meaningful change can only grow from the ground up, i.e. women themselves. And while Covid has certainly not been conducive to social gatherings, it has boosted the role of social media in making people heard.
Take that load off their shoulders
So, what can businesses do to address mental load? Here are a few suggestions on how you can help, based on our monitoring of #mentalload over the past year:
- Pave the way early. Offer shared parental leave after birth. This sets up a fairer division of labour from the start. As one woman shares:
“My partner does 50% of the kid-related stuff. The game-changer for us was how we structured parental leave at the start of our kid’s life (now 2.5yo). (…) I’ve noticed in my friends where the husband didn’t take time off, he will always ask his wife questions, rely on her for kid-related stuff and generally leave her to be the kid expert and carry the mental load.”
- Family is key. Give Parents more time off to account for children’s sickness, appointments and events. One mother on social noted that:
“He just doesn’t understand the mental load I carry. My employer only gives us 10 days a year for sick/vacation time. I’ve used all but 1 to date because of doctor appts and events for the kids, and the regular treatments my husband gets for his illness. When I’m sick I still go to work.”
- Be tolerant of the ‘new normal’. Accept that parents must juggle both childcare and professional responsibilities. It’s important not to have double standards for women and men. One frustrated woman commented:
“His company is a lot more lax with my kid sitting in with meetings with him, as many of them have kids of their own and are doing the same thing… We feel this stress all the time, pandemic or not. I work in a male dominated field. While it’s acceptable for men to step out and deal with childcare, I feel an unspoken pressure to be able to handle both without complaining.”
- Walk a mile in their shoes. Be more empathetic about fluctuations in work quality when parents are working from home while looking after children. One woman described her day-to-day grind as follows:
“I am WFH full time due to COVID and bring my son to day-care 2 days a week. The other 3 days are exhausting. I feel so lucky to be spending time with him but I never realized how IMPOSSIBLE it is to actually get things done or try to work properly. [My boss] just doesn’t get it and I have been getting a lot of flak lately for missing small details or being preoccupied… and I’m like wow…if you only knew 😖 »
- Go with the flow. Allow people to deal with caretaking responsibilities during the day and catch up later. Trust that the people you work with have just as much professional integrity as you do. One mother wrote:
“I have a full-time job as a department head while I share caregiving responsibilities with my brother (our mom is sick) and aunt. It’s a lot – I feel like I’m failing on all fronts, tbh, and it’s a huge mental load. My work has been medium-supportive –if I schedule blocks of time into my calendar to take care of things they respect that, and I work over the weekends and at night to make up for it so I can get all my work completed.”
Going from words to action
Having paid close attention to how women talk about adapting to new challenges over the past year, we believe that social can help us all relieve women’s mental load by shining a light on a myriad of individual voices hiding in plain sight.
It’s about time we listened.
By Lilas Ougen
To find out how you can use social listening for better business insights, get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.