In a regressive effect on gender equality, COVID-19 has heightened the large and small disparities that women experience – at work and at home. While few have been spared the anxiety, worry and overall emotional fatigue of the pandemic, women across the globe have reported significant mental health consequences.
The difference in impact makes it clear that women require more care from their employers. Women are feeling less supported by their employers than men, with the highest gaps being in the areas of mental health support, understanding and care provided by the employer, and enhanced health insurance cover.
A recent study Cigna invested in: the 360° Well-Being Survey, revealed a higher impact of COVID-19 on mental health and stress levels for women than men, with 85 percent of women globally suffering from stress during this time, compared to 79 percent of men.
Statistics from the UAE echo this global trend, where uncertainty of the future, personal and family finances, and lack of job security and growth opportunities have led women to feel far more stressed than men. In fact, 89 percent of women in the country have reported being stressed, compared to the global average of 85 percent.
While stress has proven negative short and long-term impacts on people’s health and well-being, its most immediate effects on women include sleeplessness, lack of concentration, feeling depressed and becoming emotionally vulnerable.
Broadly speaking, women have suffered more on all counts, ranking lower than men across all well-being parameters – from physical and social health to financial and workplace health. While adjusting to the ‘new normal,’ the highest-impact areas for women were sleep, weight issues, financial insecurity, exhaustion, and appetite disturbances.
The disruptions due to the pandemic have brought renewed attention to the challenges women have been facing globally. In particular, the focus has turned to working women and the ‘second shift’ in childcare or eldercare that they take on after their day jobs. These challenges are not new but have increased in severity due to COVID-19, and a reason why women prefer working from home (WFH) more than men.
For many working women in the UAE, the pandemic has upended their work-life balance. Most have cited working longer hours because of the distractions at home, followed by excessive workload and a lack of routine.
Despite these challenges, women have been seen to be more resilient. Yet, they are less likely than men to see a mental health professional, such as a therapist or counsellor, to help manage their stress.
While the corporate world recognizes the significant role women play in the productivity and success of companies, there is a lack of support from their employers.
Overwork, job insecurity and few opportunities for career progress negatively affect their sense of belonging and stunt their growth in the long term. It is imperative that organizations build an environment that support the unique needs of their employees, thereby enabling opportunities for growth, and in turn organizational productivity.
In 2020, the UAE government launched a historic decree introducing fully paid parental leave for male and female employees in the private sector as part of a broad reform package aimed at increasing women’s participation in the workforce.
In a society that is becoming more inclusive and shedding its gender stereotypes and biases, it is becoming imperative that employers step up and become more gender-sensitive to cultivate a dynamic and thriving workplace culture in the post-pandemic world.
HR plays a key role in spearheading a culture change that promotes inclusivity and understanding, but it is up to leaders to instill the change for good. Companies need to incorporate a top-down approach to foster a supportive environment in order to not lose this highly productive and talented segment of their workforce to competitors.
Minor adjustments, from engaging women in more leadership roles and providing flexibility to more nuanced care, such as listening and encouraging learning and development, can go a long way in creating a more positive workplace that is not only beneficial to the workers but also crucial to the success of the company.
Interestingly, women have also proved that it is vital to view COVID-19 as an opportunity to build better, stronger, more resilient societies that can bring relief as well as hope to all women around the world. As Albert Einstein said, “in the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity.” Through all its highs and lows, the pandemic may present an opportunity to learn important lessons to create a more nurturing and accepting work environments for the current and future workforce.