“We had the great resignation because those who are in positions of privilege can push back and say ‘I expect to work in an environment that supports me in a healthy manner. And this is what I need.’ Those who can, need to start emphasizing that. Because if we don’t ask, we’re dismissed and employers think, ‘no one asked for this before.’ But it’s not because no one needed it! It’s because we’ve been pummeled into submission to never ask for things that should be basic human rights,” said Molly Dickens, Scientist, Advocate and Maternal Health Expert.
Treating people like machines that can’t fail has been part of work culture for decades. We’re expected to give up sleep, family commitments and all things self-care, to build successful careers. It begins in college. And remains the silent tradeoff we’re socialized to make between our financial and physical health.
Unrealistic expectations for zero-downtime hurts all workers. But it especially penalizes Mothers, who not only need time to give and recover from birth, but raise kids. And in most families, Moms still own the majority of childcare and household responsibilities. While demands at work continue to increase.
So, even if we weren’t living through a pandemic, where 40% of the adult population has needed Covid recovery time. The excessive stress from toxic work cultures, that leads to burnout and poor health, doesn’t benefit Employers either. So, how do we finally put this relic from the post-industrial era, of the always-on ‘ideal worker’ behind us?
Health = Peak Performance But Few Orgs Support It
Elite performers, like entertainers and athletes, in top tiers of their fields are often encouraged to care for their health. They’re given special diets, medical care, and time to rest before big events. But it’s not that way for most workers. Certainly not in ‘knowledge’ fields or industries, like corporate, academic, medical and government spaces.
But even Olympians fall victim to harmful Employment practices. That reward short term hours worked over enduring contributions. Which led Molly, and her organization, to advocate for change. Beginning with professional sports.
She said, “We see sports as a microcosm for both the problem of these invisible barriers and this myth that Motherhood is a career killer. And how to break the cycle of sexism and maternal bias that comes with that myth. It’s also this interesting storytelling opportunity to look at the blockers. And potholes women face, trying to get to the other side, where they’re doing both career and Motherhood.”
And Women Don’t Fit in The ‘Ideal Worker’ Box
Molly explained, “So in sports, the ‘ideal worker box’ is starting to expand. Especially around mental health. Before, the focus was on mental toughness, and just figuring out what you need to do to perform. And with fewer female coaches, nutritionists or even research on the cycling female body, it was always about a male body. But women’s bodies break in different ways.”
What Triggers Stress Varies by Person
Molly’s expertise is in stress physiology. And its impact on maternal health. “Stress comes in many forms. And we all start at different baselines for what’s normal.” So, the shift from managing daily stressors to when we’re pushed beyond what our bodies can handle, varies.
She added, “And that’s when you have mental health, immune system, and cardiovascular challenges. Anything that’s typically associated with stress induced illness.” Many of which disproportionately impact women.
And Pregnancy Pushes Many Past Their Stress Limits
We all know that stress is bad in many ways. But in pregnancy, the effects are felt more quickly. Molly said, “The zone between what’s normal and overload from chronic stress and the effects of it, shrinks during pregnancy. You’re already closer to being pushed over that edge because the adaptive way that your body makes a human, does not favor the mother.”
This includes shifts in mental health. She added, “Over 80% of women will have some mood disorder, like postpartum depression or perinatal anxiety. And so, it’s a normal part of pregnancy that we should all be talking about and considering.” Especially in the workplace.
So, Create Supportive Work Environments
Although most leaders understand how culture affects employee wellbeing, it’s rarely modeled by managers. Although parental support is improving, Employers need to be intentional beyond the return to work. Molly said, “The other piece is how workplaces are set-up. How are women treated at work during this sensitive period? Are there unnecessary stressors, when the only goal should be not having a stress response? Because again, anything that triggers your body in a way that you are not able to fully recover from, ticks you up higher into that overload range.”
That Foster Psychological Safety & Strong Mental Health
Work, as a significant cause of stress was well documented pre-pandemic. But now, mental health at work is on the radar for most large organizations. Gallup’s State of Global Workplace report cites nearly 1 in 5 (19%) workers consistently feel “miserable” and 60% “emotionally detached.” Molly explained, “We’re just starting conversations about these connections. And we’re making big strides with people talking openly about work-related stress and mental health. But at the same time, you have to work on the other side of the equation. Which is awareness that it’s beneficial to have healthy workers.” Amen.
With Supportive Infrastructure for Parents
Traditional work has never worked well for Mothers. “Pregnancy discrimination, not having access to paid leave, lack of childcare or not having your partner helping at home, are all associated with poor maternal health,” Molly explained. It’s not a secret that parents aren’t supported well in the US. And it’s a mix of cultural norms, work practices and public policies. But there’s data that shows how better support leads to healthier outcomes for families. She added, “The pieces are all there. And we need to understand and find the solutions to allow women to have a healthier start to their child’s life.”
That Includes Paid Parental Leave
But how do we change this thinking in a culture where most healthcare spending is reactive? Molly and co-author Dr. Darby Saxbe, made the case in their CNN Op-Ed for better infrastructure. Molly explained “You need to see that this small cost upfront will payout in the long run. Because this is preventative medicine. And we will save versus the costs of long-term health consequences from work related stress. But before we can have the conversation about how to make sure workers are healthy, we need to convince our society. And individual workplaces, that it benefits everyone..”
And an Expanded View on Childcare
Molly’s organization is starting with female athletes to demonstrate how workplaces can inclusively promote wellbeing. She explained, “Yes, athletes are not sitting at a desk. But neither are pilots, doctors, or many lawyers. And they face the same problems. Because the ‘ideal worker’ for each field, is based on whoever started in that field. The structures were built around that. And when women started finding their way to these professions, they’re forced into systems that haven’t been built for them.”
Because Care is a Human Need
Molly states supporting care is intersectional. “It’s not just birthing bodies. It’s really anyone who needs anything, slightly different. Caregiving is an easy example because anyone can be a caregiver, at any point in life. And caring for children is an obvious one. But it’s underappreciated how much work goes into having a teenager. And a lot of people are caretaking for both aging parents and small children. So, you need to think about the support and structure that’s needed to still succeed in your career for anyone who’s not sitting in that ‘ideal worker’ box.”
And Moms are Good for Business
Most large organizations value Moms as consumers. After all, we make most household purchases. Yet to date, that awareness hasn’t changed things for Mom workers or founders. Molly said, “Mothers speak to a different community. And there’s value to having her career last. So, the approach from Employers needs to be, ‘how can we support you during this window of time when you need the most support?’ It’s not that hard.”
Organizations have power over more than just careers. But the health, longevity, and wellbeing for employees and their families. It’s a big responsibility but savvy leaders can change everything. With proactive support of: equitable PTO, compensation, leave, childcare, eldercare and mental health support.
Many thanks to the talented Dr. Molly Dickens!
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Molly Dickens is a scientist, writer, advocate, and mother of two. Dr. Dickens received her Ph.D. from Tufts University and conducted postdoctoral research at both the University of Liege in Belgium and at the University of California at Berkeley with a research focus on stress physiology and reproductive endocrinology. After leaving academia, she joined a maternal health startup as a founding team member, gaining in-depth experience helping to build a company while crafting brand, marketing, community, and partnerships.
Dr. Dickens’ advocacy work combines her expertise as a trained research physiologist with her passion for maternal health — as a stress physiologist, she has extended her work to include support for women during pregnancy, postpartum, and early motherhood and continues to publish in academic journals and media. Dr. Dickens is an Aspen Ideas Fellow and an NSF and NIH grantee.
In science, academia, technology, and startups, Dr. Dickens has direct experience with the barriers that women face when they choose motherhood. She has witnessed the impact of a failure to support the needs of the modern family’s work/life balance and the repercussions of a working world that is not representative of women in society. She truly believes that improving the health of mothers and the health of the working world is inextricably linked and that women will lead the charge to generate much-needed structural change.Tags: caregiver support at work, inclusive work cultures, reducing work/life stress, work life integration for Moms