Lucinda Quigley, Head of Working Parents at Talking Talent, discusses the ways in which businesses can support their working parents beyond the initial stage of parenthood and help them establish a healthy work-life balance
The disruption brought about by the pandemic forced businesses and individuals alike to reassess their situations – and much changed overnight. For working parents, this meant having to adapt to remote working, whilst also adopting the role of teacher while schools were shut. On top of having to adjust to this new way of working, they essentially had a second full-time job over the past six months.
As most schools have now reopened, businesses may think that these two jobs have again become one, but in reality, there are still conversations to be had when it comes to parental support. This is especially when considering the growing prevalence of local lockdowns and the potential of a second national lockdown – or that individual schools could be shut down due to local outbreaks.
The new pressures being faced by working parents
The lack of childcare being available during the pandemic has taken a ‘mental toll’ on working parents, with many mothers and fathers feeling under pressure to work as normal and return to the office. Concerns about the future of childcare is understandably leaving parents even more stressed – given that, pre-COVID, only a third of local areas had enough holiday childcare for full-time working parents, with high and increased prices, and as that limited system is now under threat following pandemic pressures. In addition, 17% parents are ‘seriously considering’ keeping their children out of school.
Experts are also warning of a ‘pandemic motherhood penalty’, an umbrella term coined to encapsulate the myriad of issues that contribute to mothers’ inequality in the workplace. This includes the ‘chores gap’, where women shoulder the lion’s share of unpaid care and domestic work; the lack of flexible work or equitable parental leave policies for fathers and mothers; the lack of access to affordable childcare; and gender-based discrimination, including pregnancy discrimination. This ‘penalty’ has existed for many years, but COVID-19 could exacerbate the troubling trend – especially as only half of businesses published their 2018-19 gender pay gap report this year, a move that could reportedly push gender equality back a whole generation.
Working parents have it tough right now – and businesses must actively engage in conversations with mums and dads about how they can support them, and help them to establish a healthy work-life balance and avoid burnout.
Combatting the always-on culture
Before these conversations can happen, however, one point needs to be made clear to businesses – that remote working is not the same as flexible working. Being at home all day does not offer working parents any more flexibility when it comes to balancing jobs and home – in fact, it blurs the lines. And, even though remote working does have its benefits, it has also triggered another conflict. Without the clear distinction of being at work and being at home, working parents have faced juggling the responsibilities of both, whilst being in the same environment. Not to mention the significant rise of the ‘always-on’ culture that is currently plaguing the remote workforce.
Remote working as an option for the future is definitely a start – given that recent surveys show that only 1 in 20 working parents want to return to the office, whilst 55% would choose to spend no more than 3 days there. But simply offering the ability to work from home is not enough. Employee support should go past company policies– which do not embed good practice alone. Cultural change, supported by line managers, is a significant influencing factor. Working parent coaching can also play an instrumental role in helping retain working parents – especially when their children reach a certain age.
Parental support is for life
It’s all too easy to consider coaching and other forms of support as being solely for parents heading off or returning from maternity/paternity leave. In reality, there are pinch points through all stages of parenting – particularly around children going to and leaving nursery and primary school – that working parents should have support in addressing. And, at some point, businesses supporting parents also involves supporting their children.
Although parenting has become more visible during lockdown, with children sometimes appearing on team meetings and Zoom calls, it’s crucial to remember they’re there – even when they cannot be seen. In essence, businesses and leaders must support working parents throughout every stage of their children’s journey – even when their balancing journey is less visible, and when people are back in the office.
Whether expecting or adopting, birth parent or otherwise, primary or non-primary carer; whether building up to go on parental leave, currently on leave, returning to work or having already returned; whether first-time parent or second-timer (or more); and whatever the family make-up, including same-sex parents and solo parents; high-quality, expert parental coaching, for both mums and dads, is a key enabler of talent progression. It also contributes to achieving a more equal gender balance at senior levels. From before a child’s arrival to long-term career sustainability, coaching enables parents to work out the best ways to combine their professional responsibilities with their personal commitments.
Rather than backslide, as offices reopen, now is the time for bold and honest conversations – and businesses must be ready to listen and create real change. Especially given that the pandemic has changed people’s considerations about the companies they work for whilst shifting family priorities. Although there are many factors for working parents to consider – furlough, redundancies, fewer jobs being on the market – lockdown has led many people to re-examine their careers, futures and the way they want to work. Any companies not offering the right support and company culture could find their high-talent individuals eschew them in favour of more forward-thinking firms – which will be disastrous for long-term company success.