While some people thrive working from home, it’s taking a mental toll on mothers. Could a return to in-person work be the answer?
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February 22, 2021 4 min read
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Many employers have found to their surprise that remote work offers productivity and savings. Why return to the office, and continue paying that pricey lease, when your employees are just as productive from home? I can already hear the groan of discontent from parents around the country — particularly mothers. Indeed, studies have found that mothers suffer a gender disadvantage in the remote work environment. They are more likely to work with their children present. Their household chores increase when they work from home. They are more likely to report depression, anxiety and loneliness than their husbands.
Regardless of how attentive their husbands are to the gender imbalance in child-rearing, the fact is that mothers of young and school-aged children tend to be the primary caregiver. They have found it more difficult to manage their maternal and remote work responsibilities during the health crisis.
Related: Male and Female Workers Are Experiencing Covid-19 Very Differently
Employers who decide to continue the experiment with remote work after the global health crisis must avoid contributing to this gender disparity. My research and discussions with mothers reveal a singular finding about how to close the gender gap from remote work: Remote work should be an option, not a requirement.
A case for in-person work
Just as parents realized they relied on school as a form of daycare, mothers have come to realize that they rely on in-person work as a break from their domestic roles. A study by Yale University found that mothers suffered the most due to the clash between the domestic and career roles while working from home. Going to work creates a clear demarcation between these roles.
One friend, I’ll call her M., recently took mental leave because she found the demands of remote work and child rearing too overwhelming. “I found myself scolding my kids simply because they wanted to spend time with me. They are still too young to realize that they were interrupting my work.” M. is fortunate enough to have the option of paid leave. Now she’s afraid that her firm might decide to require remote work post-health-crisis. “I cannot wait to go back to the office, and I’m not sure if I can stay at home if we go full remote.”
The allure of going remote for some businesses is obvious. Firms can save significantly on fixed overhead costs if they downsize or even eliminate their office space entirely. Indeed, many firms are considering going hybrid — placing some of their workforce in-person and the rest remaining at home. Employers are conducting occupational analyses to determine who will stay remote and who will return to work.
Related: The Motherhood Recession
Pressures on mothers
Employers should also consider the gender factor. Some accommodations should be made for mothers (and anyone else, frankly) experiencing difficulties with remote work. They should have the option to return to work even if their positions have been deemed suitable for working remote.
It’s important to note that this problem will not just go away when children return to school after the health crisis. Mothers of young children will continue to care for their children at home. Many parents will decide, regardless of the distress, to save on the costs of childcare and aftercare if at least one parent is working from home.
This is not just a matter of accommodating subjective preferences. The research shows significant mental health problems for many mothers working remotely due to the health crisis. Remote work has altered the work-life balance for many mothers in ways they never envisioned, and employers considering a permanent or hybrid remote work approach must keep mothers in mind.
Related: The 3 Things That Will Rock Your Workplace in 2021, and How to Get Ready