According to our research, the most difficult issue for women in the workplace to discuss and successfully resolve is negotiating limits on their workload—it’s also one of the main issues that cause one in five women to leave their job.
Women are more burned out—and more so than men
Women are even more burned out now than they were a year ago, and the gap in burnout between women and men has almost doubled. In the past year, one in three women has considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their career—a significant increase from one in four in the first few months of the pandemic.
The study of 845 women in business also found that women struggle most to hold high-stakes discussions with other women rather than with men.
The four most difficult issues for women to discuss in the workplace are:
1. Negotiating limits when asked to do more than is reasonable or possible
2. Giving performance feedback to someone without hurting his or her feelings or damaging the relationship.
3. Asking for a raise or a change in a performance plan related to a raise
4. Not receiving support from other women.
According to the study, only 13% of women are “very” or “extremely” confident in their ability to candidly and effectively bring up these issues while the rest fear how they’ll be perceived if they speak up or simply don’t work for an organisation that supports candid dialogue.
What happens when a crucial conversation goes awry? Nearly half admitted a failed high-stakes discussion caused their productivity and/or engagement to drop, and one in five women said they’ve had a crucial conversation go so poorly they left their job.
However, those who are skilled at stepping up to difficult issues at work experience greater satisfaction and increased productivity.
How to Negotiate Workload Limits
- Earn the right. Asking for fairness in work limits is easier when you have a reputation as a hard worker. Before raising concerns, evaluate if you are truly doing more than your share.
- Clarify intent. Don’t start the conversation with complaints—start by establishing mutual purpose with your boss. Begin with, “I have a concern about my workload, but I want to be clear that I care about helping our team succeed. I don’t want to request changes that will make your life harder or put our goals at risk.”
- Focus on facts. Don’t start with broad conclusions or generalisations that put others on the defensive. Build the case for the point you want to make by sharing objective facts. For example, “I’ve observed that those who do their work get rewarded with more work.”
- Clarify boundaries. Be clear about any hard and fast limits you have on your workload. If, for example, you have family commitments or personal time values you won’t compromise, lay those out clearly and stick with them.
- Propose solutions. Don’t just come with complaints—come with recommendations for how to make this work for your boss. If you just dump the problem on your boss, he or she may help you solve it, but you’ll strain the relationship.
- Invite dialogue. Finally, invite your boss or teammates to share their viewpoints. People are willing to listen to even challenging views as long as they believe you are also open to theirs.
What Can Companies do to help?
Companies have demonstrated strong commitment to employee well-being over the past year. They have taken a number of steps to help employees weather the pandemic, including increasing mental-health benefits, providing support for parents and caregivers, and offering more paid leave. These steps have led to better outcomes for all employees, and they have likely played a key role in allowing many women to remain in the workforce.
However, burnout is still on the rise, especially among women. There is no easy fix, so continued investment will be critical.
1. Experimenting new norms.
Companies also should look for opportunities to expand on the successful policies and programs they have already established and try new approaches. It’s also important that companies establish new norms and systems to improve employees’ everyday work experiences—even with all the right policies and programs, employees will continue to struggle if the cadence and expectations of their work feel untenable.
2. Allow flexibility to the workforce.
Over the past 18 months, companies have embraced flexibility. More than three-quarters of senior HR leaders say that allowing employees to work flexible hours is one of the most effective things they’ve done to improve employee well-being, and there are clear signs it’s working. Employees with more flexibility to take time off and step away from work are much less likely to be burned out, and very few employees are concerned that requesting flexible work arrangements has affected their opportunity to advance.
3. Setting clear boundaries.
Flexible work can quickly turn into “always on” work if clear boundaries are not set. More than a third of employees feel like they need to be available for work 24/7, and almost half believe they need to work long hours to get ahead. Employees who feel this way are much more likely to be burned out and to consider leaving their companies.
The fact that so many employees feel overworked and overwhelmed signals that companies need to define expectations more explicitly. Right now, many companies are leaving it to employees to establish their own boundaries when they work remotely or work flexible hours—and while employees should be empowered to carve out personal time, companies have a responsibility to put formal boundaries in place across the organisation. Only one in five employees says that their company has told them that they don’t need to respond to non-urgent requests outside of traditional work hours, and only one in three has received guidance around blocking off personal time on their calendar. Establishing or reinforcing work norms such as these would go a long way toward reducing the feeling of being always on.
This is a rare opportunity to change the workplace for good. Doing so will require pushing for bigger gains in representation of women, recognising and rewarding women’s contributions as people-focused leaders and champions of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and doing the deep cultural work necessary to create a workplace where all women, and all employees, feel like they belong and are valued.
This will demand a level of investment and creativity that may not have seemed possible before the pandemic, but companies have shown what they can do when change is critical. Now, they need to treat women’s equality and diversity, equity, and inclusion with the same sense of urgency—and they need to reward the leaders taking us into the future.