The New Urgency for Work-Life Balance: Why Women Are Quitting Their Jobs and Redesigning Their Lives
I remember March 13, 2020 perfectly. It was the day my marketing firm, at which I'd been working for five years, along with many other companies, announced we'd be working from home for a "short while." With the uncertainty of the pandemic, we were all scared and confused for ourselves, our families, friends, and the world at large.
In the past, I'd found working from home to be lacking. In my industry, we worked in such a collaborative environment—team deadlines, brainstorming, presentations—that I didn't know how we were going to succeed while working apart. On the other hand, I couldn't even take my trash out without the fear that I was going to catch the virus. I saw friends, especially women, lose their jobs and was grateful to have the option of working from home during this unprecedented time.
According to The New York Times, C. Nicole Mason, president and chief executive of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, called the disproportionate loss of jobs by women throughout the COVID-19 pandemic a "she-cession." In previous economic crises, men bore the brunt, but industries hardest hit by the pandemic—hospitality, education, health care, and travel—traditionally skew more female. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 3.5 million mothers with school-aged children either took a leave, lost their job, or left the job market. Even with the recent drop in jobless rates, women are still significantly 2.3 million jobs behind pre-Covid rates. The National Women's Law Center also estimates that, at the rate of job gains in November, it would take 30 months for women's employment levels to reach pre-pandemic rates.
The "she-cession" will have lasting impact on women's economic participation: rising poverty and lower homeownership rates, for example. "A lot of women have taken on more child care, general caregiving, and household responsibilities since the start of the pandemic," says Laura Geftman, a licensed social worker at Lina, a digital mental health care provider. "Thus, reintegrating into the workforce becomes even more of an obstacle."
So I considered myself lucky that I still had a job. But as the weeks wore on, the boundary between my work life and personal life ceased to exist. I woke up at 6 a.m. with my computer staring at me; work always took precedence. There was no natural beginning or end to my day, and I was working more than ever before, and was more isolated than ever. I traded actual conversations with my co-workers for communications over instant messaging—a poor substitute for the connections we formed while working together in the office.
I lived alone in a small New York studio apartment, which now also included my makeshift office. My beloved white mid-century dining table doubled as my desk. The incessant chime of notifications pealed forth from my laptop 24/7. My work life bled into my personal life until I could no longer distinguish the lines. I felt trapped in a never-ending cycle of work and sleep.
I read research studies that linked social isolation with an increased risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and premature mortality, and feared for my mental well-being. I knew I needed to prioritize my work-life balance, but the panic of unemployment consumed me: What will I do for medical insurance? What is my team going to do without me? And, more importantly, What am I going to do without my team?
In September 2020, my company announced that we would be working from home indefinitely. I'll never break free from these walls, I thought. With no end in sight, all I thought about was quitting. I played out the conversation in my head, brainstorming fake excuses, like that I was going back to school or relocating to be closer to family.
"Work-life balance virtually disappeared for a lot of people struggling to make ends meet in a world with an ambiguous future," says Geftman. "Additionally, because of this fear of the future of the pandemic, the impact of losing a job or career due to the pandemic on mental health has become unparalleled."
This has led to dire consequences for our nation's workers. "Since 2020, rates of depression, anxiety, substance use, PTSD, and suicidal ideation have risen in U.S. workers," Geftman says. "Poor mental health outcomes are a result of several factors, but ultimately it is because the pandemic destabilized any sense of security that U.S. workers had."
The breaking point for me came when my sister visited in August 2021. I had been excited to spend time with her and hoped to take her to get a second ear piercing. But my work habits (addictions?) were so inflexible, so ingrained, I was unable to take a break to do anything even remotely resembling fun. "She doesn't even eat lunch!" she tattled to my mother. At just 17, my sister had the wherewithal to recognize the toxic work habits that I couldn't see myself. It was then that I knew I needed to make a change.
"For many, COVID-19 has prompted meaningful reflectivity, leading to career changes or career pauses, which speak to a person's values," says Michael Mazius, PhD, a clinical psychologist and director of the North Shore Center of Wisconsin. "They may find their new approach complements rather than contradicts their most meaningful values."
As companies have begun the slow process of restaffing and reopening their offices, many women are grappling with what they've learned during this time: Am I on the right career path? Do I like working from home? Do I want to return to my pre-pandemic life? Can I afford it? Can my mental health?
I haven't been alone in asking these questions. A widespread focus on reprioritizing values has led, in part, to the so-called Great Resignation. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in November 2021, a record 4.5 million Americans, or 3 percent of the entire workforce, voluntarily left their jobs. And I was one of them. A few weeks after my sister's visit, I knew I needed to break away from my unhealthy cycle, but how?
I researched places abroad for examples of healthier work-life balance. I heard about the millions of days of vacations that Europeans enjoy. I read about a law that Portugal introduced in November that makes it illegal for employers to contact their employees outside of office hours. (Similar legislation has been on the books in France since 2017.) While America is lacking in these areas of workplace norms, and I had no plans to move abroad, I knew that whatever I did going forward, finding a way to "disconnect" was the first step toward establishing a healthier work-life balance for myself.
After learning about more flexible work routines and watching others around me leave their traditional jobs behind, I knew a better route was possible for me, too. So I made the life-changing decision to quit my job in exchange for a more flexible life as a freelancer. The transition hasn't been without its challenges—seeking out my own clients and figuring out how to draft contracts, to name two. But the anxiety is all but gone, I'm on my way to earning the same amount of money I was via full-time work, and most importantly, as my own boss I'm able to prioritize the things that make me feel stronger and happier: fitness, meal-prepped breakfast and lunch (not in front of a computer), and reconnecting with the family and friends who seemed so distant over the last year and a half.
Of course, the freelance life isn't for everyone. So what can employers do to slow the tide of the Great Resignation? "As employers, companies are the gatekeepers to financial and economic security," says Geftman. "In order to achieve more sustainable working conditions for everyone, companies must begin to place more value on the mental health needs of their individuals."
In a survey about work-life balance conducted by Real Simple (which included 436 women respondents between the ages of 18 and 74), perhaps the most staggering statistic the poll revealed: Though respondents had mixed feelings about remote work (some love the freedom, some find it monotonous), virtually none of them are interested in returning to working full-time in an office. A hybrid work schedule, trade-offs and all, is the wave of the future, it seems.
There is no quick fix to achieving work-life balance. In fact, the goal of perfect balance might often be unrealistic. But it's clear that it's time to take a step back and reevaluate what is most important to each of us. We should also recognize that fighting for more sustainable working conditions for everyone will ultimately benefit those who don't have the luxury to quit their job.
Many work dynamics will never go back to the way they once were—i.e., the default routine of five days a week of in-person work—but sometimes change can be a really good thing. With a greater focus on mental health and increased demands for flexibility, I'm looking forward to this new future of building work around our lives, not the other way around.