Making Benefits Work for Working Women

By Lisa Wolf

As many employers settle into a new norm of post-covid, dynamic work models, the good news is that women are making a strong return to the workforce. The number of women at work was recently reported at 77.8  million – higher than pre-pandemic levels for the first time. 

That’s a positive sign for companies who not so long ago faced somewhat daunting predictions of what the National Library of Medicine has termed a she-cession. Yet women still face significant personal and professional challenges that add to the pressures at home and hinder their success at work. Here are three reasons why many continue to struggle: 

  •   Women are still juggling careers and caregiving duties.

In a Deloitte Women @ Work 2023 Study, nearly half of the women who work full time have primary responsibility for domestic tasks such as cleaning or caring for dependents. Only around 10% say these responsibilities fall to their partner. Additionally, women of color are more likely to be caregivers. During the pandemic, many women faced the taxing challenges of overseeing kids who were learning online at home, as well as tending to the caregiving needs of an aging or ill loved one — all while trying to get their jobs done well. 

Now, as many working moms return to work, they’re still running the household from their desks, overseeing childcare arrangements and busy school activities, while in many cases, supporting an aging parent or grandparent. Stretched in different directions, pangs of guilt tug at them: when they are at work, they feel like they should be caring for others, and when they’re at home, work commitments are lingering in the backs of their minds. 

These are the hidden impacts of caregiving, which results in turnover and loss of productivity, and costs U.S. businesses $35 billion annually from failing to attract, support and retain these crucial workers. Seventy-three percent of all employees have some caregiving responsibility. However, because the majority of employers don’t track caregiving status, they don’t offer the supportive infrastructure — such as the right benefits and policies — to support this large segment of their workforce.

  •   Women feel added financial pressure — and less security.

These financial facts may be startling for employers. Women in the US earn less than men — averaging just 82 cents per dollar. Pay gaps are even wider for many women of color. Maybe that ongoing inequity is the number one reason why women said in a 2023 CNBC Momentive survey they would quit their jobs for one with higher pay. Plus, 61% of young women say they face financial anxiety, stress about finding a well-paying job, and are concerned about balancing their future career and personal life. 

What’s driving this added financial stress and insecurity? For starters, many women are not only tasked with managing the financial obligations of their own lives, but often must deal with the financial challenges of others, like a parent who needs a medical procedure or a care facility. 

Plus, since women are more likely to reduce their work hours or take a break from their careers to care for a child or family member, that time away from work generally means less income and less ability to save — including saving for retirement. No wonder financial concerns put a major strain on mental health. Almost half of women identify bills and expenses as one of their top two sources of stress, according to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC).  

  •   Women are still stressed out.

Women are reporting they’re more burned out than their male counterparts. For working moms, it’s the daily grind of keeping up with family responsibilities while holding down a job and trying to be a productive and collaborative colleague at the same time. Frankly, it’s hard to be strategic when your mom is scheduled to get blood work done at 2 p.m. and your middle-schooler needs a ride to softball practice at 4 p.m.. 

The stress can be a lot for team members to have to work through. Yet employers should note that only 25% of women feel comfortable discussing their mental health in the workplace. And many don’t feel they get adequate mental health support from their employers. 

On the front lines with a working parent

One person who’s endured an element of all three of these challenges is ARAG Marketing Manager Alison Cate, who had two children during the pandemic. She shared her return-to-work experience after delivering her first child. “When you’re coming back to work after three months away, you have this fear of, ‘Am I going to remember how to do my job — and still be good at it?’ If you’ve never taken any substantial leave before, it feels like a monumental time to be away.” 

She adds, “When you return, you’re not really sleeping. You’re trying to adjust to a whole new jostled schedule. But you’re expected to do the same job you did before — and at the same performance level.”

For Alison, she felt the additional pressure of having so many boxes to check off, both as a mom and as a productive employee. “It’s very hard for your brain to turn off or switch gears as you transition from one role to another — or try to fulfill both commitments simultaneously. I think that’s why a lot of women are asking themselves, ‘As much as I love being a mom, is this worth trying to juggle everything?’ There are times I don’t feel like I’m doing a good job at work, and I don’t feel like I’m doing a good job at home either. Plus, I’m spending half my paycheck on daycare costs. How can I keep this up?”  

Creating a more women-friendly workplace

Alison’s account represents a common experience for many working women — and a voice that should be heeded by employers if they want to attract and retain them. Here’s how your clients can address their more pressing needs:

  1.     Give employees the time they need. What benefits do employees — and women employees in particular — value most? In a word, flexibility. Beyond benefit staples like healthcare and retirement plans, having an ability to work remote or hybrid, more flexible work hours, and paid/unpaid time off are growing in importance — largely to support a more seamless integration of women’s’ professional and personal lives. Allow them the time to address their issues now. If your clients don’t offer added flexibility, chances are these women will either step away from their job or find another employer who will offer it. 

Plus, offering flexibility is a win-win for both the organization and for a team member as it builds an amazing amount of loyalty. Employees won’t want to leave a company that helped them take care of what they needed to do at a pivotal point in their lives.  

  1.     Recognize that caregiving skills are leadership skills. Take a moment to think about the women who serve as caregivers and the leadership skills they’ve honed through that experience. It takes researching and understanding complex information, prioritizing events and issues, and delving into financial matters. It requires learning how to delegate effectively and be an advocate on behalf of a loved one. And it takes high emotional intelligence to navigate this road successfully. Don’t let those incredible talents slip away — allow women to do what they need to do, and they can then bring those valuable skills back to the company.
  1.     Offer benefits that answer the call for support. One way you can help clients ensure the women in the workforce feel valued is to review their current benefits — and consider adding ones that would better support them. Maybe it’s one-on-one financial counseling through a company’s 401(k) plan or benefits to help them find childcare or elder care, including emergency or back up care, as well as legal assistance to empower them to handle those added caregiver responsibilities. At ARAG, we’ve identified the need for additional time off to help employees manage life changes, which prompted us to offer paid caregiving leave as well as parental leave that gives team members added flexibility and time to take care of the important things in life.  

Additionally, look at what resources and services your clients can provide — and promote — beyond their EAPs. Help them be more aware of all the benefits available that support their physical, financial, and mental wellness. For example, we recently partnered with our broker to deliver a mental health guidebook for our team members that outlines all the different services, resources, and benefit options available to them should they face a mental health issue. 

While employers made great progress in our efforts to support women in the workforce, we have more strides to take. And while this is certainly not an exhaustive list of what your clients can explore, hopefully these ideas can serve as a catalyst for discussions as you meet with them to execute benefit strategies for next year.

Lisa Wolf is ARAG Legal Insurance Director of People & Culture. With 20+ years of HR experience, Lisa provides vision, leadership and operational management aligning with the strategic direction and culture of the company. She oversees talent acquisition, organizational design and effectiveness, performance management, employee relations, compensation and benefits, succession management and team member learning and development. Lisa is fiercely dedicated to creating and protecting cultures where team members and organizations thrive.