Credit: Courtesy of BC Women's Health Foundation

As female staff bear the brunt of the pandemic, organizations should offer benefits and policies that make their mental well-being a priority

The disparities of COVID-19’s impact are stark and shocking. Here in B.C. and around the world, the pandemic has disproportionately impacted women and worsened the inequalities they already faced.

Women’s participation in the Canadian job market has fallen to its lowest level in three decades. Between February and October of last year, more than 20,000 women fell out of the workforce, while 68,000 men joined it. Almost one year into the pandemic, women continue to bear the brunt of unpaid family responsibilities, such as child care and home schooling, with working mothers aged 24-55 in B.C. attributing six times more lost work hours each week to those duties than men.

Also, thanks to the gendered nature of their work in B.C.—where most female labour is in hospitality, health care, retail and education—women are at higher risk of exposure to the virus than men.

So it’s no surprise that deteriorating mental health has also been disproportionately felt by women. A new survey from the BC Women’s Health Foundation, in partnership with Community Savings Credit Union, reveal that nearly four in 10 ten women throughout the province think their mental health has worsened since mid-March 2020. Of those polled, 40 percent said they don’t have access to the mental health support they need. 

The impact of the pandemic on women’s mental health is clear, but what does it mean for employers?

For too long, mental health has been a taboo subject. That’s to our detriment: it costs the Canadian economy up to $50 billion every year because people are unable to work. But in comparison to physical well-being, mental health considerations remain secondary concerns in the workplace.

Recent campaigns that aim to break the silence are making a difference. Employers are starting to candidly and openly highlight the importance of mental well-being with staff—a crucial first step in normalizing the conversation.

But more can be done. For women in particular, we must to go one step farther. Sadly, understanding of women’s health needs is well behind that of men’s. As a result, women are subject to misdiagnosis, symptom minimization and poorly targeted treatment. To keep advancing gender equity, we need to recognize the systemic and societal barriers that stand in women’s way.

This goes beyond breaking the silence around mental health or creating safeguards. Employers must implement policies and benefits that support optimal mental wellness. Those could include paid sick leave, flexible working hours, access to mental health experts—such as counsellors and psychologists—and free access to mindfulness and meditation apps.

But most important, we should actively listen to women’s needs, learn from the latest research—like the recent findings from the BC Women’s Health Foundation—and support women holistically, especially during the pandemic.

Together, we can help that ensure women don’t face this mental health crisis alone.

Genesa Greening is president and CEO of the BC Women’s Health FoundationMike Schilling is president and CEO of Surrey-based Community Savings Credit Union