As South Africans celebrate the women in their lives during the month of May, one of the country’s leading corporate wellness experts takes a serious look at what working mothers and women in general have sacrificed this past year.
“During lockdown, women’s responsibilities as primary caretakers in the home increased over and above existing work commitments with additional burdens,” notes Ina van der Watt, managing director of Universal Corporate Wellness.
“Some of these included assisting children with home schooling, increased meal planning and execution, and looking after other relatives in need of care,” she adds.
Van der Watt highlights a significant gender disparity in the number of calls received over the past year at the counselling help line of Universal Corporate Wellness, which provides counselling to many corporate clients and medical scheme members 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
A total of 38,5 percent of calls were made by males, while almost double that amount, 61,5 percent came from female service users.
“The top three difficulties that our callers were experiencing included interpersonal relationship issues, adjustment difficulties and bereavement and loss. This disparity in the data is significant and may indicate that the additional responsibilities carried by women made it particularly difficult for them to cope with the family being at home all day, alongside doing their own paid work,” asserts Van der Watt.
“The knock-on effect of this for women’s careers is yet to be seen. However, we do know that employees demonstrating a diminished capacity for work are more likely to be laid off, and we are currently in a financial crisis with companies trying to cut costs in order to survive.
“For working women who have struggled to perform an increased role as caretaker at home while still trying to manage their paying job, this is a very real threat,” she adds.
According to Van der Watt, women who had to take time off or reduce their work responsibilities to provide support at home in the form of unpaid labour are less likely to be promoted or receive better job opportunities.
“The effects of added household labour during lockdown are not simply temporary, they can have lifelong consequences for a woman’s career and future earnings potential,” says Van der Watt. “The issue of unpaid labour is not a new one, it has simply been brought further to light by the advent of Covid-19 and the many career sacrifices women have had to make as a result of the pandemic.”
Indeed, the findings of the 10th round of the South African Social Attitudes Survey Report released by the Human Sciences Research Council in 2013 showed that eight out of 10 employed women with a partner always or usually took care of household meals and approximately 65 percent did the laundry and cleaning.
“Furthermore, what we usually refer to as the ‘double burden’ women carry of both a remunerated role in the workplace as well as unpaid labour at home, might be better termed as a triple burden, as women also carry the weight of the mental load,” she notes.
Van der Watt likens mental load to project management, as it involves anticipating and planning for the needs of the household, scheduling, creating lists as well as reminding other family members of their tasks.
“This is the work that cannot be seen but requires additional mental energy and without which the household would operate in disorder,” Van der Watt explains. “The considerable effort required to manage mental load, unpaid household labour and paid work can take its toll on the individual experiencing that level of pressure.”
Van der Watt advises working women in such situations to take steps in protecting their mental and physical health. “Women in modern society have come a long way, yet there is much further to go. In the meantime, we must take care of ourselves – our health as well as our families and careers depend on it.”
Top twelve coping tips suggested by Van der Watt:
- Get your lifestyle basics in check by eating healthily, exercising for 150 minutes spread over the week and getting between seven and nine hours sleep every night.
- Share the load. Have an open and honest conversation with your partner about dividing up the household tasks as well as the planning of them; schedule this like a meeting for a time when you are both able to participate in the conversation constructively.
- Engage in one or two hobbies you really love and remain socially connected, even if remotely.
- Keep communication lines open with your partner and your children. Encourage everyone to express how they feel in a calm manner and work together as a team to support one another; maintain the family connection with a weekly game night or other fun activity.
- Plan and take holidays during the year – this is important for you and your family; if finances are a challenge explore more affordable options to what you may have done in the past.
- Manage social media – a family social media schedule and content guidelines can help to avoid stressful online interactions and overuse of screens.
- If working from home, create a dedicated workspace and set boundaries around your space and work hours so you can focus.
- Create a daily routine including scheduled breaks – you will achieve more with focused work hours and a refreshed mind.
- Touch base with work colleagues and managers for support when you need it – you will come off stronger by getting a job done well with a little help than by scraping through on your own.
- Build in slack. Adding an extra 15 minutes to your morning routine for example, to accommodate life’s little surprises, can help you to start your day on time and unflustered.
- Set realistic expectations. This applies to yourself as well as others; it is better to under-promise and over-deliver than the other way around.
- Recognise stress triggers. When you feel stress coming on, try to practice mindfulness with a breathing exercise to help you regain focus.
“The past year has put a spotlight on the additional burdens women continue to shoulder, over and above their breadwinning contributions,” Van der Watt says. “It is important that this societal legacy is addressed if we are to move forward on a more equitable footing.
“For now though, we at Universal Corporate Wellness would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge all those women who have made sacrifices for the sake of their families and communities. It has not gone unnoticed. Women and mothers, we salute you,” she concludes.