Real Questions (And Answers) About Shift Inflexibility And The Impact On Women

The ups and downs of the labor market over the last two years have been well documented. But there’s something happening that not many are talking about—the impact the pandemic has had on women. 

When the economy took that initial hit in April of 2020, both men and women were affected. But since then, there’s been a shift. Even as things are getting back to normal, it’s women who are struggling, especially women in shift-based workplaces.

During the pandemic, women lost a million more jobs than men did. Most of those losses were for women of color. 309,000 women aged 20 and over left the workforce in September 2021, while men in the same age group gained 182,000 jobs that month. Even the women who are working aren’t getting the hours they really want—25% are working part-time when they want to (and are available to) work full-time.

The truth is that women bear the burden of taking care of homes and families when times get hard. Once children are born, fathers typically increase their working hours, while mothers tend to reduce their time in paid work—leading to a life with interrupted career paths, part-time work, or employment in more flexible low-wage occupations. Women do twice the unpaid domestic chores of men and mothers in paid employment are 23% more likely to experience burnout.

That’s why we recently held a webinar, How Shift Inflexibility Disproportionately Impacts Women, led by Ginny Drinker, VP of Strategic Alliances here at When I Work. In today’s labor market, businesses need to use every advantage to attract and retain the best workers. If you can offer flexible, empathetic scheduling, you can tap into a group of workers who’ve been struggling to find the right fit. Plus, these best practices for shift-based workplaces will give your business a competitive edge when trying to hire anyone. 

Flexible self scheduling is at the top of every job seeker’s wish list right now.

Real questions from real people

While we encourage you to watch the webinar, here are the top questions (and answers) to help you understand how flexible scheduling can help you and your team.

1. Does empathetic scheduling take long to implement?

2. What kind of training and outreach would you recommend for managers when you implement empathetic scheduling?

3. With the labor shortage, it can be difficult to be flexible and meet demand. How can we do both?

4. This (scheduling with shift flexibility) feels intimidating to start, what would be the first step to better address retaining women?

5. How do you know if employees are struggling with flexibility or juggling kids or other personal demands? If no one is speaking up, what do you suggest doing?

6. We are trying to attract more women to a male-dominated industry. What’s the best way to “advertise” shift flexibility in job postings and other recruiting efforts?

7. I haven’t allowed employees much flexibility in the past. Do people often abuse flexible scheduling?

8. Can you expand on how shift inflexibility has impacted BIPOC women?

9. What is your best prevention or remediation for mental overload and burnout?

10. How do you put empathy into policy?

1. Does empathetic scheduling take long to implement?

It really doesn’t. It depends on how you manage your scheduling, and it’s a lot easier with a scheduling tool that allows for flexible scheduling. As long as you have the right tool in place, it’s just a matter of changing your practices. You can start slow, maybe one day a week, and turn it on and go from there to roll it out to your employees.

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2. What kind of training and outreach would you recommend for managers when you implement empathetic scheduling?

The first step is to get buy-in from the rest of your managers and staff—involve them early on. This is the best way to ensure that people feel that they’ve been heard. You can share stats similar to the ones we’ve included (and there are more in the webinar). The numbers speak for themselves and do a good job at convincing others there’s a problem that needs to be solved. 

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3. With the labor shortage, it can be difficult to be flexible and meet demand. How can we do both?

This whole problem is a cycle.  We can’t provide the flexibility because we’re short staffed, and we can’t open up to more women who need flexibility, and so then we’re short staffed again. What surprises a lot of people is that when you do implement shift flexibility, it actually ends up solving some of your labor shortage issues. Obviously, it won’t happen overnight, and there might be some initial friction when you make the change, but wait it out and you’ll see the benefits. 

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4. This (scheduling with shift flexibility) feels intimidating to start, what would be the first step to better address retaining women?

Just being here, knowing that it’s something you need to think about is a great first step. For the next step, talk with your leadership team. Let them know it’s something that needs to be addressed, and that it’s something that you want to focus on. Then go out and learn where your challenges are, conduct exit interviews, send out surveys, and talk to your employees. Once you learn how women are impacted at your place of employment, then you can start to apply some of these policies and some of these ideas to your unique situation.

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5. How do you know if employees are struggling with flexibility or juggling kids or other personal demands? If no one is speaking up, what do you suggest doing?

The simple answer is ask them. An employee survey is also a  simple option. I think a lot of times women are sort of conditioned to not bring up family life at work for fear of the backlash. Even an anonymous survey might give them the opportunity to speak up without fear.

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6. We are trying to attract more women to a male-dominated industry. What’s the best way to “advertise” shift flexibility in job postings and other recruiting efforts?

There are a number of ways but it really depends on what your place of employment is. Think about who you want to attract and where they’re going to be. There are plenty of job boards that focus on women. Another idea is to ask your women to go out and recruit other women. They’re going to know great people that they’ve worked within the past and that’s your best source of leads. Focus your advertising, especially in the way that you’re writing the language of job descriptions, and be sure to leverage employee referrals. 

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7. I haven’t allowed employees much flexibility in the past. Do people often abuse flexible scheduling?

It’s really pretty rare. You can put rules and limitations in place to make sure that when employees are swapping shifts, you know the right kind of shift is covered by a qualified person. You’ll be surprised as to how much it’s just appreciated and the abuse of flexible scheduling is really very rare. Most of your employees will be professional about it and they want to keep it. They understand that if they abuse it, it’s not going to be around anymore.

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8. Can you expand on how shift inflexibility has impacted BIPOC women?

Statistics show that shift-based jobs are disproportionately filled by women and that most of those women are non-white. Just that fact alone means that shift inflexibility impacts BIPOC women at a higher rate than any other demographic. There are just more BIPOC in shift-based roles.

However, challenges to BIPOC women due to shift inflexibility during COVID should not be viewed in a vacuum, but understood as part of the long-standing structural inequities faced by BIPOC women. Women of color in families with children are far more likely to be breadwinners or single heads of the household, in addition to being caregivers. And women of color are less likely to have the savings necessary to go without earnings. Therefore, BIPOC women are more vulnerable to severe negative consequences based on forced choices to go to work or a requirement to stay home to provide family care.

When BIPOC women are discouraged from taking time off for family care, it makes it difficult to respond to their family’s needs. And in roles where they are less likely to have protections such as paid time off or sick leave, their caregiving needs strip their access to work and financial security. The sheer number of BIPOC women in shift-based roles, compounded by the long-standing effects of bias, make flexible schedules more important to this demographic than any other. Providing flexible schedules to allow women who are more often single mothers, breadwinners, and heads of households to more effectively navigate the delicate balance between family care and providing for their families through steady employment is more important now than ever. 

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9. What is your best prevention or remediation for mental overload and burnout? My employer has offered to let me have a mental health day, but I feel guilty taking one.

Your time off is yours to use how you want. If you have paid time off, use it how and when you want or need it. If not, your time off is still yours to use as you’d like. Mental health is health. There has long been a stigma around mental health—caring for your mental health is seen as a weakness, while society emphasizes measures to care for our physical health. Start by destigmatizing caring for your mental health and practicing self care in general. Your employer should be empathetic to these needs. And further, you’re a better employee—more engaged and productive— when you’re not burnt out. Taking time to focus on your mental health is a win/win for you and your employer.

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10. How do you put empathy into policy?

The definition of empathy is the capacity or ability to imagine oneself in the situation of another, experiencing the emotions, ideas, or opinions of that person. It’s easy to confuse it with sympathy, which is typically defined by feelings of pity for another person, without really understanding what it’s like to be in their situation.

Policy only goes so far if empathy isn’t a part of your culture, and it’s not intuitive to your leaders. The pandemic has underscored the need for empathy in leaders—people who can lead in both good times and bad. Start by hiring for empathy, specifically in leadership. Ask interview questions that show you value this soft skill as much as you would value others, like communication skills and reliability. Next, empower your leaders to go outside of policy when needed. Policy will never be able to contemplate all of the complicated situations we find ourselves in on a daily basis. As leaders and managers, we should be empowered to apply policy to fit the unique needs of our teams. 

Finally, when creating policy, do your best to consider the perspectives of your employees, and if you’re having a hard time doing that, ask! Don’t guess about what your employees would want. Form a special committee of diverse employees from across the organization to provide feedback on policy or conduct an employee survey to get input. 

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Check out the webinar

This is a small sampling of the conversation. Take an hour out of your day to watch the recording. Hear some real, actionable information on how you can incorporate flexible scheduling into your business to help bring women back to the workforce.