Thursday, June 30, 2022

A Perfect Storm: Why Are Women Leaving Their Jobs at the Peak of Their Careers? An Expert Explains

We all know that everyone has experienced a fair whack of change in the last two years – but if you’re thinking that it seems as though women have had it rougher than anyone else, you’re not alone – and you’re not wrong. In fact, we’re leaving, or changing careers, more than ever.

Lockdowns disproportionately affected women as the juggle got worse and the payoff less – and that’s had a surprising effect on our career aspirations. Dr Fiona Crichton, a behavioural change expert at workplace wellbeing platform Groov (formally Mentemia, Sir John Kirwan’s mental health app) says it’s been an interesting time to be a woman – and it’s meant many more of us are leaving or changing careers at their peak. Why? Read on to find out.

Have you noticed a trend in women leaving (or considering leaving) their careers, or changing careers, at the peak of their careers?

Over the past two years, we have seen a significant increase in the number of women taking up self-employment and “going it alone” and for many women, going it alone is perceived to be a really positive step. Statistics New Zealand confirms that for the year to March 2021 the number of self-employed women increased by almost 14%, compared to a slight increase of 3.5 percent for men. The truth is that women tend to report feeling very satisfied with their move to self-employment, with fewer than 6.5 percent indicating they would prefer to work for someone else.

Well, that’s positive! But to leave a career after years of building and sacrifice is a massive call – how have things finally reached a tipping point where the juggle is no longer sustainable?

There are a number of reasons why women are waving their old employers goodbye and starting anew.

There’s the thorny issue for New Zealand women of the gender pay gap. The latest figures show a national gender pay gap of 9.1 percent which varies by occupation and is as high as 15% in the professions. A recent spotlight on this continuing inequity has caused some women to reflect on the situation in their own workplace. This can be the impetus for some to leave and forge their own path. It’s a way of taking back control. Unfair treatment is a huge motivator for life change.

Another reason was revealed in the research we conducted at Groov (formally Mentemia) earlier this year with one in three workers saying they think about leaving their current place of work at least once a week. The frequency of these thoughts increases dramatically if workers are of the view their wellbeing is unsupported in the workplace. In fact, those who feel their wellbeing is unsupported are six times more likely to think about leaving their workplace most days. 

And, then the pandemic has been a catalyst for what has been called “the great reprioritisation”. Many employees are taking stock and assessing what is really important to them. This has involved both a consideration of the things in life they value and a reflection on how valued they feel, which has lead to changing careers. People are also questioning whether their work is personally fulfilling or aligning with the things that really matter to them, like being with family or spending time on pet projects. When there’s a mismatch between work and values, even those who have spent years building a career can be left pondering whether the career they have is worth other sacrifices. 

Is this a ‘perfect storm’ where heavier workloads are clashing with blurred boundaries of home and work – is this a consequence of Covid and because many of us are now working from home?

It is certainly not by chance that the increase in women moving to self-employment coincided with the pandemic. During lockdowns women were disproportionately taking on the burden of childcare responsibilities and additional domestic duties while juggling work commitments. So, it could be called a perfect storm, yes. An unmanageable workload, lack of work-life balance, and feeling something has to give, have proved to be underlying drivers for some of the career shifts we are seeing.

But it hasn’t been all bad. Working from home during the pandemic has been revelatory for many women. Some have enjoyed a level of flexibility and job autonomy that has resulted in improved productivity and job satisfaction. In fact, pressure to return to the workplace in a full-time capacity has been another reason for some to rethink their jobs and thing about changing careers.

Why is this affecting women more than men?

In essence, it’s about timing. Lockdowns disproportionately affected women when it came to juggling home and work commitments. Women were, and continue to be, at increased risk of burnout. Some workplaces have been slow to adopt wellbeing policies that support work-life harmony – which impacts women in particular as they tend to be taking on more of the caring and domestic responsibilities outside of work. Given that evidence shows that valuing employees and supporting wellbeing actually improves productivity, the failure of workplaces to embrace wellbeing is a particularly bitter pill. Beyond wellbeing, there are also some structural inequalities within workplaces, such as unequal pay, that are causing some women to think more about the benefits of self-employment.

So, what do women actually want?

Everyone is different – but it all comes down to feeling valued. The evidence is clear that people perform better when they are treated fairly, their work is recognised, their contributions are acknowledged, and their wellbeing is supported. An emphasis on delivery and productivity, rather than hours spent in the office is also key. And it’s win/win because when workplaces take these steps, they will not just improve business outcomes, they will retain their best talent.

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