Updated: Jun 21, 2021
How are working parents in your organisation dealing with the implications of Covid-19? Now schools have closed, parents who work are facing a profoundly challenging time. They need supportive, proactive leadership from HR and management to help them cope
Written by Emma Waltham | Careers after Maternity Expert
The impact of Covid-19 is deeply worrying for us all. Parents are trying to come to terms with the challenge of working from home with their family around. This situation may go on for many months and parents can no longer ask grandparents to help. This feels overwhelming.
It's important to give working mums the support they need now, to help them find a way to balance work and family, so that they don't burnout and are able to remain productive in the coming weeks and months.
Impact on Working Mums
A recent survey found that two thirds of employers currently cite anxiety as their biggest challenge. Workingmums carry a disproportionate burden of domestic and caring responsibilities, and are more likely to struggle financially, so it’s likely that anxiety is especially high in this group. On the flipside, another survey discovered that many employees are underestimating the challenge working parents are facing, with only 45% of working parents saying they would be able to work from home with schools closed. Yet, 70% of employers are encouraging staff to work from home during this time.
Guidance for Managers
What this tells us is that organisations need to act now to provide support, otherwise working mums will feel overwhelmed and unable to cope. Not addressing this will have a huge impact on wellbeing and productivity at a time when your organisation needs its employees to be engaged to ensure operational continuity.
“Organisations need to act now to provide support, otherwise working mums will feel overwhelmed and unable to cope going into the coming weeks. Not addressing this will have a huge impact on their wellbeing”
What can you do? This is a stressful time for you too and you won't have all the answers. We are living through an unprecedented situation. Accept that you and your team will have to figure this out as you go along. Don't put too much pressure on yourself. But do begin the conversation.
Where to start? Here are five steps managers and HR can take right now:
The longer employees are left in a vacuum, without reassurance and input from their manager, the more anxiety will build. Feelings of overwhelm and anxiety are debilitating, and make it difficult to think or act. Send out a message now to your working parents that it’s a priority for you to help them find a sustainable, realistic way to handle their workload. Provide a safe, holding space for employees to take a breath and step back, to consider how best to manage this new situation. Encourage parents to take care of themselves and get enough sleep. To build in regular time to exercise, take breaks and do activities that are relaxing.
Discourage parents from looking after children in the day and then trying to work late into the evening, early in the morning and through the weekend to catch up. Taking care of children is hard work, especially babies and toddlers. Working 24-7 is not sustainable for more than a short time. Allow working parents to put time boundaries in place, to safeguard their mental health.
Not all employees will have enough equipment or a good enough internet connection for everyone to be able to work from home, bearing in mind that school-age children also have online work to do. Can your organisation help plug the gap?
Continue to pay staff rather than expecting them to take unpaid parental leave, an initiative that was not designed for living through a pandemic. The government's guidance is that workers who can't work because of caring responsibilities can be furloughed. So, parents whose children cannot attend school could be put on furlough rather than taking annual leave or unpaid leave to look after them.
Be compassionate, empathetic, and realistic. Keep lines of communication open and encourage your working parents to share how they’re feeling. Ask them to talk about their challenges, empathise with the situation and ask them what would help. Sometimes just knowing someone is listening and cares is enough. Support them in finding a sustainable solution, and trust that they are doing their very best to balance their personal and professional responsibilities and needs.
"Support them in finding a sustainable solution, and trust that they are doing their very best to balance their personal and professional responsibilities and needs"
Keep your usual 1:1s and team meetings in the diary, using tech like Zoom or Google Hangouts to ensure communication remains strong. Help your team to understand what is in their control and what isn’t, and encourage them not to worry about what is outside their influence.
Identify what’s business critical and let the rest wait. Concentrate on delivering what will make the most positive difference. Encourage an approach to work where those with transferable skills pool resources and cover each’s other's work when needed. This is particularly important in teams with client-facing roles.
Focus on output and not hours worked. Be flexible. Some parents will need to do shifts to make this work. They may need to have a child sitting on their lap and CBeebies on in the background to be able to contribute to a team call. Expect children to pop up unexpectedly on calls, we can’t chain them to the kitchen table.
When children are ill, understand that parents will need to take time off to care for them. That’s their priority, and they can’t think clearly when they are preoccupied by concerns that a child needs them or might be in distress.
If you have employees coming to the end of maternity leave, keep up with your usual onboarding processes. Women need their KIT days more than ever now, to ease their return back into this exceptional working environment. They can start to listen in on team calls, for example, or take part in online training, as well as having structured onboarding sessions over the phone or via video conferencing. Returning to work after leave is a time when parents feel worried at the best of times, so it’s vital to keep such measures in place now.
Continue to ask your team what's working and what could be better. Don’t feel like you have to come up with all the solutions. Ask them for their ideas on how to improve how you are collectively working. Play your part in making sure they continue to have the processes, information and tools they need to do their job, under these challenging conditions.
The Long View
There is a huge, long-term risk here that women - who tend to carry the burden of domestic and childcare responsibilities - will feel under so much pressure during the Covid-19 crisis that they will disproportionately take unpaid leave, reduce their hours or step back from work entirely in order to cope.
Often, due to the gender pay gap and the fact that a much higher proportion of women than men work part-time or flexibly, women feel that their paid work is not as important as their partner’s. Women are consequently more likely to sacrifice their role, if juggling work and caring responsibilities proves too challenging. To protect your female talent pipeline, you need to act fast, to put in measures to prevent this.
"Women are consequently more likely to sacrifice their role, if juggling work and caring responsibilities proves too challenging"
It's vital that you support your working parents now, at the time they most need it. By focusing on what is business critical and giving employees the support they need to make their invaluable contribution, you will put your organisation in the best possible position to go forward.