Earlier this year, I wrote about Women and the Pandemic: A Crisis Within a Crisis, which talked about women’s gains throughout the last century—and their steps backward due to the pandemic.

Unfortunately, the situation hasn’t gotten better. According to Wellbeing Stats for Women in the Workplace, about 3.5 million women, or about half of mothers with school-age children, have left the active workforce since the pandemic’s arrival.

Research shows a variety of reasons, but stress plays a major role. According to the State of the Global Workplace, 62% of working women said they experienced stress “much of the day yesterday.” Reasons for this stress vary, ranging from a need for better wages, treatment, support, and benefits, particularly paid maternity/parental leave.

If we are to support women in the workplace, it’s helpful to have thoughtful discussions on these topics and look at how the U.S. compares to the rest of the world in supporting women. For example, did you know that the United States is one of three of countries in the world that does not have paid parental leave? The others are Papua New Guinea and Oman.

A UNICEF report ranks the U.S. last for paid maternity/parental leave. A recent Forbes article says we’re light years behind other wealthy countries. According to PolitiFact, other wealthy countries average 51 weeks of paid maternity leave. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a minimum of 18 weeks paid maternity leave and paternity leave.

Almost 30 years ago, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was passed, ensuring up to 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave. However, there are barriers to qualify for FMLA, and it covers only half of the U.S. workforce. In addition, a majority of these parents return to work early because they cannot afford unpaid leave or they believe this time off will harm their career, which evidence supports.

Why do these statistics matter? Because having a baby is extremely taxing on the body and requires adequate recovery time without the stress of returning to work too soon. Having paid leave also promotes early bonding between parents and baby by enabling them to spend time together. Studies show these early bonds are critical to an infant’s social, emotional, and cognitive development, as well as their long-term mental health and resilience.

It’s also helpful to note that the U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate of wealthy countries, which is often attributed to unpaid leave. Race further impacts maternal mortality rates, which are expected to climb because of the pandemic.

Less support for women after a baby’s arrival also leads to greater stress at the workplace. Women make up half of the workforce and roughly 85% of women have at least one child. Since the pandemic, childcare shortages have forced many women to quit their job to stay home and care for their children.

In a survey this past summer, 74% of American workers say they’ve experienced burnout. Left unaddressed, these challenges can negatively impact an organization’s turnover and bottom line.

In the U.S., ongoing stress, burnout, and lack of support have forced many women to leave the workforce, a phenomenon known as the “she-cession.” “In other countries, there are safety nets,” explains sociologist Rochelle Burgess in Time. “In the U.S., we have women.”

The she-cession isn’t just bad for women, it’s also bad for company profits. Over the next two years, it’s estimated that women’s exodus from the workforce will cause the U.S. economy to lose at least $885 billion. If we are to reduce this trend, we must explore ways to improve women’s well-being.

Let’s start by having these discussions. What can be done to help women thrive—at home and at work? What kind of support is needed? What kinds of policies do we need to enact?

I’d like to see paid maternity/parental leave, starting with at least 18 weeks per WHO recommendations. And it’s not just me—in a poll taken earlier this year, a full 82% of Americans support paid maternity leave, including for adoption. This same poll showed that 68% of Americans support paid paternity leave, which helps fathers develop better relationships with their partners and children and become more active parents. All of this reduces the likelihood for divorce.

In addition, better wages, childcare (or reimbursement), flexible work schedules, and remote work can also help women flourish in the workplace, which has a positive impact on the bottom line.

Recognizing the need for paid maternity/parental leave is also a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issue, in that it recognizes long-standing inequities pertaining gender and equality.

Keep in mind, your employee assistance program (EAP) can help you overcome many of life’s most common challenges related to parenting and work. To learn more about the FEI EAP, please contact us.