Working parents. Between a rock and a hard place.

When the country went into lockdown in March, there is no doubt that this provided challenges to almost everyone. For working parents, these challenges were significant. For those who had to combine work and childcare, work and homeschooling, this has been a time of stress, anxiety and guilt. Guilt about not doing their best at work, guilt at no doing the best for their kids. Stress from trying to do it all in complex circumstances. Overwhelm from the sheer volume of stuff to do.

The response to lockdown from schools has been highly variable. Some provided a great deal of support and guidance, others very little. Some children returned, however briefly, to school before the summer break but most did not.  We are now five months on and the schools are preparing to go back – but the situation is far from normal.

Here’s what is currently facing working parents:

  • Schools are opening – but not in the way they were before lockdown and even small changes are impacting working parents. One example – staggered starts and end times to the school day. Just one more thing to navigate if you are taking more than one child to school.
  • Wraparound care isn’t opening or opening at normal capacity. Parents might have the school hours back but they don’t have the vital before or after school support that they need, limiting the hours that they can work.
  • The prospect of future school closures if there are cases in the school or locally loom large.
  • Pressure from government messaging that people should be returning to work (by which I assume they mean the office, given that many have worked longer and harder than ever before during recent months).

The flexibility that many organisations provided during lockdown cannot realistically last indefinitely. This week I have been sent a copy of new guidance (from an employer that I won’t name here) stating that from 1st September their pre Covid-19 Homeworking Policy now applies in respect to children – parents cannot now wfh and be caring for children at the same time. The company expects them to have childcare in place – or apply for reduced hours. It might look harsh, but there is an economic reality to be faced for many businesses and they need their people to be productive. In some cases, erroneously, managers and organisations feel that this involves being present too.

What will be the outcome for those working parents who still cannot find childcare, who may once again have to homeschool children whilst working in the event of a school closure, and who cannot meet those employer demands to have childcare in place or return to the office? The picture is bleak.

If one parent in a household has to give up their job or reduce their hours, there is a good chance this is going to be the female of the species. We already know that women have been taking the brunt of the childcare during this period – and are starting to face the worst of the economic consequences. The systemic gender issues in our society mean that the chances are it’s mum who has already gone part time, earns less or otherwise limited her career in order to balance work and family. It isn’t a stretch to assume this trend will continue in the difficult months to come.

There is no end to the potential issues. Long term career implications, stress and anxiety, exhaustion, financial implications of reduced hours or incomes, the mental health and education effects on the children themselves. Lost jobs, lost opportunities.

So what can be done? There is no easy answer – and certainly not one that will keep all parents in their jobs and all parents earning their normal salary.

Recognising that many organisations have critical business challenges as result of Covid-19, I still believe that they must do what they can to support their working parents during this difficult period. Here are just a few things that can be done:

  • Support career breaks or sabbaticals from working parents who may want to take some time off.
  • Provide additional special leave, even if it can only be unpaid, for working parents who need to take time of work in the event of a school closure. Don’t count this as absence for the purposes of internal policies.
  • Support requests by parents for temporary reduced hours working – with the option to return to full / contractual hours in the future. Don’t hold people to lengthy application processes for this – provide quick decisions. Don’t force parents into a permanent change.
  • Allow employees to work flexi-time where roles permit. Let them work their hours when they can work their hours if you can.
  • Provide ongoing wellbeing support, including mental health support to all employees. If you can, target some events at parents or provide a space for them to network and share – and simply support each other.
  • Promote messaging about flexibility and empathy to people managers – they need to know they have permission to make individual arrangements and should be focusing on outputs not hours.
  • Take steps to ensure that any absence or short term reductions in performance / output do not have long term career implications. Monitor other policies such as disciplinary, attendance, reward, promotion and performance review to ensure fairness and consistency.

This is not a time for slavish devotion to formal policy.  This isn’t a time to shame those who simply cannot return to normal or who have some additional challenges.  This is a time for empathy, compassion, flexibility.  It’s good for employee engagement, retention, motivation.

It is also simply, the right thing to do.

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