Covid-19 has disrupted global business on a scale that has not been seen in over 75 years. While the true consequences of the virus are yet to surface, they are expected to affect women disproportionately. Businesses and the private sector can play a crucial role in mitigating its impact by supporting women during and after this pandemic.
Worldwide, business leaders have been forced to make tough decisions with respect to their staffing and operations. But while the quantity of jobs will suffer, decent employment must not be sacrificed. Women occupy the greatest proportion of precarious employment in the informal sector and as part time workers, and they are disadvantaged by gender pay gaps and their underrepresentation in leadership positions.
The last economic crisis showed that changes in developed countries negatively impact global supply chains, and thus have repercussions for women working in low income economies. This adds extra challenges to the pursuit of gender equality and women’s empowerment, and businesses should therefore ensure women are not left behind by protecting those they can and those they are responsible for.
An effective response to this crisis will require recognition of the virus’s differential impact on employees. This includes by adopting an intersectional and gender sensitive approach that addresses the vast needs of males and females. Inspired by two webinars hosted by the United Nations Global Compact and Empower Women, we explore how businesses can protect their female employees, while also providing benefits for their wider workforce.
Businesses could benefit from adopting a multi-stakeholder and people-centred approach and engaging in dialogue. Conversations between executive leaders and employees at all levels, entry level to senior and management levels, are important to evaluate what the impact of this crisis is. Regular meetings between a company’s leadership also provide scope to continually monitor and assess the wellbeing of employees following their feedback, and therefore allows companies to determine the success of response measures.
“A solution that may work for one group in the community may be damaging to another.”
Inclusivity is of utmost importance when coordinating decisions during a crisis. This pertains to all social groups and diversity beyond gender, such as culture, religion, disabilities, age and race. A solution that works for one group might be damaging for another. Research has shown that diversity and inclusion promote better decision making and problem solving at work, both of which are invaluable when confronting challenges. Dialogue between all social groups within an organisation, and guaranteeing equal representation in response development can make responses to Covid-19 more effective.
Dialogue is also important on a personal level and a company’s people-managers should build strong relationships and trust with their employees. Regular communication with colleagues over the phone or virtually online can support this. Managers should also be innovative and develop creative ways to engage employees remotely. Virtual social interactions between team members, such as playing games or quizzes can reduce stress by allowing people to connect on a human level that is not work related.
Within a team, each member should be accountable for the wellbeing of one another. However, team members must feel comfortable to approach their managers or colleagues to discuss their difficulties. A manager can appear more approachable by giving their employees a glimpse into their own personal challenges. Additionally, it costs nothing for a manger to ask an employee how they are coping. Even if the employee does not voice concerns they will appreciate their manager’s compassion in asking.
Asking questions can highlight the unintended consequences women may be facing because of lockdowns, such as the startling increase in domestic violence. In such incidences, managers can direct employees to necessary services such as domestic violence hotlines, or by showing support for any other health and wellbeing needs.
Covid-19 has challenged the physical and mental wellness of workers, yet maintaining wellness is essential to upholding normal business operations.
Many factors provoke mental health issues. Covid-19 will exacerbate pre-existing stresses and give rise to others such as anxiety over finances, the health and well-being of family members, job security or relationship breakdowns. For women this may be compounded by the extra pressure of also caring for children full-time.
The irregularity of working from home can also impact physical and mental wellness because work life and home life are not separable. People working remotely often feel inclined to prove they are performing, resulting in employees working longer days than normal. This coupled with people’s reluctance to take time off when working remotely can be detrimental to mental health and working productivity.
Adding value to employees comes from harnessing their engagement with their work. Promoting wellness reduces employee turnover, which thus minimises disruption to work and the cost of hiring new employees. The healthier and happier employees are, the more productive and hardworking they are. A strong and healthy workforce improves a company’s resilience following a crisis by guaranteeing that they are ready to resume ‘business as usual’ when the crisis subsides. In essence, good health is good business.
To encourage a healthy work-life balance, managers should encourage employees to take breaks and take time off. Supervisors must also trust that employees are acting responsibly when working remotely, especially when they have clear work objectives. Employees should be urged to take regular exercise where possible, eat healthy and stay hydrated. These activities are simple yet have incredible benefits for wider wellbeing and therefore business success.
CTG has launched CTG Learning, an e-learning platform on Kaya, which offers free and relevant courses and resources developed for the humanitarian sector by leading organisations. Head to our Health and Wellbeing section and take advantage of our recommended courses.
Some employees might want to work effectively but are restricted by the current circumstances. Allowing flexible working can provide employees with the means to continue operating which is beneficial for business. However, flexible working is not just remote working. People might wish to adjust their hours to cater to changes in routines. For example, some parents might prefer to work a morning shift from 6am rather than 9am, or do a night shift depending on when their family responsibilities are the greatest.
Other flexible working options can include reducing employee work hours to part time, or allowing compressed work schedules where more hours are worked over less days. Job sharing also provides flexibility by dividing the responsibility of one full time job between multiple employees. In this case each employee only works part of the work week. For the employee this structure likens part time work but guarantees coverage for the employer in an employee’s absence.
“Lack of paid leave has greater consequences for women who assume the greatest proportion of family caring responsibilities”
During Covid-19, employees might require time off work for short or extended periods of time because of increased care responsibilities or illness. The provision of paid or medical leave prevents employees from having to choose between caring for their families and keeping their jobs. Many individuals face a double-edged sword: they cannot afford to take unpaid leave to care for dependents and they cannot afford care support. Paid leave thus provides disadvantaged groups with financial security. Lack of paid leave has greater consequences for women who assume the greatest proportion of family caring responsibilities and who might therefore be forced to sacrifice work.
Paid sick leave for ill employees reduces the spread of illness and the number of workdays a company loses. Productivity is increased and public health is improved. Additionally, paid leave increases employee retention and wider company morale.
Paid leave policies are also beneficial for women and the economy long-term. A study showed that paid leave reduces the number of females who leave their jobs in the first year after giving birth by 20 percent, and by 50 percent after five years. This increases women’s labour force participation which subsequently benefits the economy. Failure to accommodate for women’s needs instead equates to a loss of talent.
‘EQUALITY MEANS BUSINESS’
Employers and businesses worldwide should recognise that a successful response to Covid-19 requires addressing the differential experiences and needs of individuals. Equality, empathy and solidarity are mindsets that should be given priority during a crisis and can prove invaluable for businesses in their own longer-term recovery.
The changes prompted by Covid-19 provide businesses with the opportunity to improve the workplace for everyone at all levels by adopting gender-inclusive workplace practices. Afterall, ‘equality means business’.
If your business hasn’t already, CTG recommends implementing the Women’s Empowerment Principles, a set of considerations to help the private sector focus on key elements integral to promoting gender equality in the workplace, marketplace and community. Not just for women, but also for your business’s long-term sustainability.
In doing so you will join the global force for good that cares about women’s empowerment while also securing a strong foundation for your business to support women both during, and after this unparalleled time of crisis.