Women in Canada have long been walking a tightrope as they try to meet work with family responsibilities, but the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has seen some working women opting to walk away from trying to continually balance professional and personal obligations.

According to a Royal Bank of Canada report in April 2020, women’s participation in the workforce dipped to 55 per cent for the first time since the mid-1980s. As well, a McKinsey and Co. and LeanIn.org 2020 report noted during the pandemic, women — and mothers in particular — are more than three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for most of the housework and caregiving. In fact, mothers are one and a half times more likely than fathers to spend an extra three or more hours a day — equivalent to 20 hours a week, or half of a full-time job — on housework and childcare.

Read: Women’s participation in labour force reaches lowest level in three decades: study

“It’s impossible to ignore the fact women in the workplace are being stretched thin right now,” says Donna Carbell, Manulife Financial Corp.’s head of group benefits for Canada. Although there’s a portion of the population that’s been more easily able to maintain work-life balance while working from home, she says there are lots of roles out there, particularly those held by women — teachers, nurses, retail or factory workers — that can’t be done remotely and who’ve still got caregiver demands. And working mothers employed in those type of out-of-the home roles are the ones she’s seen walking away.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Reynolds, chief executive officer of Toronto Finance International, says women from all types of occupations and different education levels are dropping out of the workforce. She believes this “she-cession” will ultimately lead to both a wage and skills gap for women. “One of the good things about the pandemic is we’re seeing adoption of technology and changes to the ways we do business, it’s fundamentally changed a lot of jobs . . . so women who aren’t in the workforce over this period, when things are changing very rapidly, may not be gaining [much-needed] skills.”

Read: Women considering downshifting, leaving careers due to pandemic: report

Reynolds points out attention to mental health in the workplace, maintaining flexibility and keeping the lines of communication open will be key to repairing the damaging effects of the pandemic to the pipeline of opportunity for women. While companies are talking more about the importance of mental wellness for employees, she says there’s still a need for more education and discussion around mental-health issues.

Organizations have a range of virtual health-care options from which to choose that would provide their employees with on-demand access to health-care professionals, says Carbell, from primary care practitioners to more robust mental-health care and professionals through internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy.

And flexibility in working hours and meeting times can also go a long way toward making women feel supported and recognizes many working parents, particularly mothers, are often juggling helping children with remote schooling while juggling their remote work at the same time, says Reynolds.

Communication is another key area, she says: “Some . . . institutions have really been working at trying to open up those lines of communication, making it known what help is available — what’s included in [employee] benefits and encouraging people to take advantage of [those benefits].”

Read: Women leaving workforce to care for kids during pandemic: report

If organizations do have female employees who opt to take a break from paid work, employers should stay in touch with those employees and, hopefully, pull them back in when they’re ready, letting them know the company is committed to creating an environment that works for them, suggests Reynolds.