Diversity & Inclusion, Recruiting, Talent

To Return to Work or Not: For Women, That Is the Question

I’ve gotten used to putting my son down for his 12:30 nap, and so has he. Like so many working mothers, I’ve been home since March 2020, adapting to doing my job remotely while making discoveries and choices in my personal life I didn’t know were possible when I was in an office. Now, my employer’s first steps toward bringing us back to the workplace are causing me to think about what this change will mean for my career and my family, and the decisions are complicated.

Since the pandemic began, 3 million women have left the workforce, and millions more, like me, moved the workplace to their home. For women affected by the COVID-19 upheaval, the agonizing choice between employment demands and the responsibilities of child care has had an impact on their careers, finances, and mental health.

One in 10 working mothers with children under 18 said they quit a job due to COVID—a figure that was 3 times greater for low-income working mothers whose jobs in industries like health care and grocery stores required them to work in-person. For those working from home, the impact of school and daycare closings was also humbling.

One-third of working mothers surveyed said childcare issues caused them to work fewer hours during the pandemic, and one-fifth switched to part-time positions. Sixteen percent decided not to pursue an available promotion.

Income and Career Disruption a Major Challenge

The effect of income and career disruption on mental health has been profound. Alarmingly, more than half of mothers with school-age children identified the stress and worry of the pandemic as affecting their mental health; however, only 16% of mothers have sought mental health care.

Even in a time of unprecedented loss and grieving, women are yoked by the expectation of resolving the conflicting demands of work and family and suffering in silence. In the coming months, the outcome of the gap between mental health need and intervention may only get more dire as the “workplace question” becomes urgent.

Everyone wants women to return to the workforce and workplace, including the federal government, which began dispersing childcare credit checks to families in July, hoping it will encourage women’s return. But it’s not so simple. Women are asking: Return to what? The uncertainty of school reopenings and vaccination status for children under 12 and the rise of COVID-19 variants are generating a new set of stressors. Moreover, there’s a sense that the world is no longer the same.

The pandemic’s forced march to isolation also spurred time for self-reflection, an awareness of the life experiences sacrificed by working away from the home. For 16 months, women have had the opportunity for quality time with their families. Moving forward, we want to prioritize the values we have been living but are, again, facing the traditional struggle between work and home that the cuts of the pandemic have deepened. These quality-of-life issues are direct influences on mental health and are the key choices women are confronting as they decide if and how to leave their homes.

This month, going to my office became an option, and I decided to come in some days. However, at the same time, I don’t entirely want to give up my at-home parenting. I signed up for our flexibly remote option 1 to 3 days a week. So far, when I’ve been in the office with few people there, it’s unclear if I made the right choice and if I would be better off at home putting my son down for his nap. I know I’m disrupting what’s become comfortable for him, too. I didn’t think that way before, and it stings, even though I realize I’m fortunate to have flexibility.

Many mothers are now thinking of their work in new terms: What am I missing by going to the office? If I work 8 to 5, with 2 hours of commuting on top of that, I’m giving up the time with my kids that defines our quality of life. There’s a recognition that things like sleep are a huge factor. With parents not going to work every day and not having to get kids out the door earlier, the schedule has supported their kids sleeping longer. That has an enormous positive effect on mental health.

There’s a paradox at the heart of our recent experience. While creating economic hardship for many, the time home has enabled an awareness of the sacrifices we’d accepted previously and an ambivalence about what to do as the pressure to return increases. This is the conflict we’re grappling with, and we’ll need to find ways to address the stress it triggers. Changes in therapeutic intervention—to telehealth and self-directed digital therapeutics solutions—proved capable of meeting the demands of home-based care during the pandemic. These methods will be essential to women’s mental health through the long and uncertain transition.

“Daylight,” a digital therapeutic that my company developed, is the type of automated, personal intervention people can utilize to manage signs of worry and anxiety as they present themselves. Maintaining our mental health will be a coping act: accepting that our worlds have turned upside down and will continue to change while preparing for those personal changes. Working through the stressors of turbulence will involve making choices that value the quality-of-life awareness we have experienced and bringing that into what’s ahead.

Jenna Carl, PhD is Vice President of Clinical Development & Medical Affairs at Big Health. Dr. Carl is a clinical psychologist who specializes in the research and treatment of anxiety, depression, insomnia, and related mental health disorders. She has authored more than 30 peer-reviewed publications and has presented her research and clinical trainings at leading international conferences, such as the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, World Congress for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, and the American Psychological Association (APA). She serves as Chair of the APA’s Division 12 Presidential Task Force on the integration of technology and mental health treatment.