August 10, 2021

5 Ways Organizations Can Support Working Parents as They Return to the Office

The pandemic-induced child-care crisis has been difficult on working parents. As schools and daycares closed during lockdowns, employed parents were forced to figure out how to balance work and child care for children who were suddenly home-bound. For many, it came down to being “forced to choose between their kids and their jobs,” writes Laura Santhanam, health reporter at PBS NewsHour.

According to data from the U.S. Joint Economic Committee, 13 percent of employed parents report having to cut back hours at work enough to lose a full day of work a week or quit their jobs altogether. And while working fathers were certainly impacted by the child care crisis, it was particularly hard on working moms.

The “Motherhood Penalty” of Being a Working Mom

The pandemic has been hard on working women, especially those with children. Data from various studies supports this.

  • The Census Bureau reports that in April 2020, the share of mothers actively working dropped by 21.1 percentage points while the share of fathers working decreased by 14.7 points.
  • According to Pew Research Center, 59 percent of women in opposite-sex relationships say they have more household chores and responsibilities than their partners, and 74 percent say they have more child-care duties than their partners.
  • A 2020 study by McKinsey & Company and Lean In shows 24 percent of working moms worried about feeling judged at work for their caregiving responsibilities during COVID-19, compared to only 11 percent of working dads.

That more working mothers than fathers have been negatively impacted by the crisis is an example of what Lindsey Feitz, director of the University of Denver’s Gender and Women’s Studies program, calls the “motherhood penalty.” The term describes a prevailing reality in the U.S. that was exacerbated by the pandemic, “where workplace culture and family life balance tends to come out negatively for mom,” explains Feitz.

It’s time for that to change. Now that schools and day care centers are reopening and moms are returning to the workforce full time, companies can take steps to make it easier for working moms to balance work and home life.

Employers have an opportunity to support working moms so they can be “breadwinners, mothers, or some combination of the two,” write Nicole Bateman and Martha Ross, a research analyst and a senior fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings Institute, respectively. “A woman’s place is in the family and the workforce, if they so choose. We can’t bounce back from the COVID-19 recession without interventions to support them in both roles.”

HR can lead the charge to create more supportive workplace environments for working parents, especially moms. Here’s how.

a path thru the grass to a tree beneath a rainbow; concept: supporting working parents as they return to the office

Communicate With Working Parents About Their Needs

Creating work environments that enable working parents to succeed starts with understanding their needs. Employees with children may be hesitant about initiating those conversations in case they are perceived by their employers as barriers to productivity. That’s why HR managers need to start the conversations.

“Managers should continue to (or begin to) proactively ask employees what they need, how they feel, and if they feel comfortable in how they work,” write Dana Sumpter and Mona Zanhour, associate professor of organization theory and management at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School, and assistant professor of Human Resource Management at California State University, Long Beach, respectively. “Leaders can discuss suffering and show vulnerability, to help normalize such conversations.”

It’s all about engaging working parents so they know the company empathizes with their struggles and cares about finding solutions.

Implement Flexible Working Arrangements so Working Parents can Find Balance

The pandemic highlighted just how unrealistic it is for employers to expect working parents with kids at home to work 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. Companies can embrace flexible working arrangements to allow working parents some leeway in their schedules to do their jobs and care for their children.

“Remote work and flexible schedules allow caregivers the freedom and flexibility to successfully complete their work and care for their families at the same time,” says Laura Hamill, founder and chief science advisor at Limeade Institute. This is going to be a critical element in supporting working parents as they return to the office, and may even be a deal-breaker for some.

Flexible working arrangements can come in a number of different forms, including work-from-home policies, adjustable working hours, and variable work days. The goal of any such policy is to give working parents the flexibility they need to be both employee and parent.

Offer Child Care Benefits That Solve for Accessibility and Affordability of Child Care

Lack of access to child care is the key reason so many working moms dropped out of the workforce and so many parents fell behind in their careers during the pandemic. The child-care crisis highlights just how important child-care benefits are for working parents and how crucial it is that companies offer these benefits to attract and retain working parents.

“The sooner employers treat child care with the same seriousness as health care and other aspects of businesses infrastructure, the faster employees can get back to full force,” write Alicia Sasser Modestino, Jamie J. Ladge, Addie Swartz, and Alisa Lincoln at Harvard Business Review. Offering on-site child care services or options for backup child care is one way companies can address the accessibility issue.

The other key issue in child care is affordability.

According to Care.com’s 2021 Cost of Care Survey, child care is not affordable for most families, with 85 percent of parents reporting they spend 10 percent or more of their household income on child care. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says 7 percent of household income is the threshold for child care being considered affordable. A financial child care benefit would help working parents afford quality child care.

Making child care more accessible and more affordable should be a top priority for HR right now, as it will better enable parents to balance child care and work responsibilities.

four smooth stones gently balanced in a stack beside a pink flower; concept: supporting working parents as they return to the office

Adopt Paid Family and Medical Leave Policies

Just as important as child care benefits are paid family leave policies. Unfortunately, as Matt Bruenig, president at People’s Policy Project, points out, “America has no federal paid sick leave or parental leave. This differs from most developed countries that provide this kind of leave to their residents.”

The pandemic amplified that shortcoming and highlighted just how important paid family leave is, especially to working parents. And while there are conversations happening about creating such a federal policy in the U.S., companies need to be proactive in providing this benefit to their employees as they return to the workplace.

Companies like Intel have recognized and addressed this. “When our employees and their families are supported, they perform at their best,” says Julie Ann Overcash, global HR executive leading Total Rewards and Talent Retention at Intel Corporation. “We want our employees to know we are here to support them through all the situations they and their families may encounter.”

Address the Well-being of Working Parents

The well-being of women in the workforce declined during the pandemic as they struggled to balance work life with child care and household responsibilities. Research by Yale University suggests that working women “are suffering emotionally more than men,” explains Emma Zang, assistant professor of sociology in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, “….even when they retain employment and have the option to work from home. Women across employment situations are doing worse than men in the present circumstances.”

To help working moms cope with the stress and pressure of earning a living and raising children, companies should provide them with resources. One example is to share information from professionals about coping with mental anxiety and stress. Another is to be prepared to direct them to reputable healthcare professionals, possibly even bringing a professional to meet with workers.

HR can also support the well-being of employees with children by creating working-parent support groups. These can be chat groups in the office communication platform or in-person meetings hosted on the property. Facilitate these gatherings by giving employees resources to gather together for open discussions about their struggles. Again, if possible, bring in speakers to talk about balancing work and home life.

Working parents need all the support they can get as they reenter the workforce or return to a full-time schedule after COVID. Companies that want to attract and retain these workers must build working environments that encourage rather hinder their ability to balance caring for their children and advancing their careers.

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