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There are social determinants of health impacting women and causing working mothers to leave the workforce. Side note: if you read this title and thought, “What is a social determinant?” That’s perfectly alright. Here is more information and some surprising FAQs.

What are the social determinants of health?

According to the Center for Disease Control, the social determinants of health are the conditions and factors in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age that significantly impact their health and well-being. They determine 50% of a person’s health outcomes, and it’s worth noting that by ignoring these issues, society pays dearly. Health disparities caused by these social determinants cost over $300 billion annually in healthcare costs.

How are the social determinants of health influenced?

The social determinants of health are influenced by various social, economic, and environmental factors described below. It’s essential to recognize that these social determinants of health interact and have cumulative effects on individuals and communities.

Socioeconomic Status: This includes income, education level, occupation, and social class. Higher socioeconomic status is generally associated with better access to resources, healthcare, and healthier living conditions.

Neighborhood and Physical Environment: Factors such as air and water quality, housing conditions, access to green spaces, healthy food options, and exposure to environmental hazards can significantly impact health outcomes.

Education: The level of education attained influences employment opportunities, income, and overall health literacy. Education provides individuals with the knowledge and skills necessary for making informed decisions about their health.

Employment and Working Conditions: Job security, income, working hours, occupational hazards, stress levels, and access to benefits and social support affect overall health and well-being.

Access to Healthcare: Availability, affordability, and quality of healthcare services, as well as health insurance coverage and proximity to healthcare facilities, play a crucial role in determining health outcomes.

Social Support Networks: Supportive relationships, strong social connections, and access to community resources positively impact physical and mental health.

Culture and Social Norms: Cultural beliefs, values, and social norms influence health behaviors, attitudes toward seeking healthcare, and the availability of culturally appropriate healthcare services.

Gender: Gender-based factors, including societal roles, expectations, and discrimination, can impact health outcomes and access to healthcare services.

Social Exclusion, Racism, and Discrimination: Systemic racism, discrimination, and prejudice can lead to health disparities among marginalized populations, affecting access to healthcare, quality of care, and overall health outcomes.

Why are the social determinants of health causing working mothers to leave the workforce?

When discussing how to make health more equitable for women, we must take a more holistic approach to how their environment contributes to their overall well-being. 

At work, the most significant social determinant of health affecting women, specifically working mothers, is disconnection and lack of ambient belonging. This is feeling comfortable in a space — like you are accepted, valued, and included. Even before the pandemic, many women in the workplace didn’t have a sense of ambient belonging, especially mothers. 

They worried about being penalized in the workplace:

  • 42% of women worry motherhood will negatively impact their career trajectory or leave them unable to advance as quickly as their peers. Women also are more likely to take on elder care and other caretaking roles. 
  • More than 25 million women care for family or friends in the U.S. 
  • More than 70% of working mothers and fathers say women are penalized professionally for starting families. 
  • Almost three-quarters of moms — and more than 70% of women without children — say mothers are offered fewer opportunities to move up the ladder than childless women. 
  • 82% of working moms cite barriers keeping them from leadership roles. 
  • 78% say they have to prove themselves more in the workplace.

They also worried about being perceived as less devoted to their careers:

  • More than 40% of U.S. employees say working moms are less devoted to their work. 
  • 38% judge moms for seeking more flexible schedules. 

Think about it – internally, if all these thoughts are swirling in your head, and externally you’re perceived this way, could you ever feel connected at work? No wonder these women have a disproportionate ability to connect at work. 

For the women who HAVE managed to connect and thrive in the workplace, being forced into quarantine and a stay-at-home mom role is also challenging. They’ve lost an important sense of their identity.  According to Motherly’s State of Motherhood survey, 41% of full-time working mothers say that they are most strongly defined by other non-motherhood aspects of their life and self. 

HR leaders who want an effective strategy to support their working parents need to dig deeper to get to the root of what’s really happening. Any population’s mental health and well-being must be promoted; hence it is important to recognize and consider the social determinants of health. 

These determinants of health are the underlying factors contributing to mothers’ morbidity and mortality rate that can NOT be addressed with just medications. In other words, you can not have health equity without addressing these determinants that contribute to working mothers’ wellness or lack thereof.