For more than a quarter of workers, managing the work and childcare juggling act was their leading cause of stress during the Covid-19 pandemic.
This was the finding of a study by Cartridge People. And that’s without the added burden of having to homeschool, something that many parents felt unprepared for. People Management conducted a survey which polled more than 300 employers and found that 65% of organisations were concerned about staff’s ability to balance home working with parenting commitments.
And this isn't limited to during the coronavirus pandemic. A global childcare crisis means that the struggle of balancing work and parenting will continue.
With this in mind, what steps can HR take to make sure that they are looking after the wellbeing of parents, while also balancing business expectations?
- What does UK law say about flexible working for parents?
- How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted childcare and work?
- Keeping an eye out for signs in the workplace
- Enabling open conversations about work-life balance
- Proactivity and flexibility
- Creating a family-friendly workplace culture
- Reducing failure demand
- Re-focusing workloads
- Supporting leave
- Reviewing the situation regularly
- What has changed since lockdowns?
Flexible work can mean a range of different types of working, including working from home, flexitime (where workers can choose when they work outside certain core hours), job-sharing, compressed hours, and part-time.
Flexible work is especially useful for parenting and caring duties. A study published in 2020 found that 75.3% of parents wanted to work flexibly so they could spend more time with their family. For example, a father might want the flexibility of flexitime hours in order to make it easier to pick up his child from pre-school in term time, or a mother might request to work remotely in order to better take care of the child.
Currently, workers in the UK have the right to request to work flexibly after they have been employed at a company for 26 weeks. Originally, this policy was designed for parents and caregivers, although in 2014 the government extended this right to all employees regardless of their family life. However, workplaces are not legally obligated to grant this request.
Working from home, for many parents, has meant having to juggle work with parenting and homeschooling responsibilities. This is especially true for mothers, with one survey finding that 43% of women reported having to combine childcare with working from home, compared to 29% of male partners.
3 in 10 mothers said that they had to work before 8am and after 8pm to be able to get their work done as well as their caring responsibilities, and 1 in 6 (mostly mothers working low-paid jobs) said that they had to reduce their working hours so they could take care of their child or family.
And, even as the country reopens and many working parents return to the office, there's a childcare crisis that continues to make it difficult for parents to balance work and life. In fact, a third of full-time working parents spend more on childcare costs than on their rent or mortgage. The expense and closure of crèches and other childcare provisions has meant that many families have had to fend for themselves.
So, with work-life balance continuing to be a source of stress for parents, it's more important than ever that HR can help managers and organisations in supporting working parents. Here are some ways HR should be supporting parents in the workforce.
There are some key signs that you should keep a look out for which can help identify if a working parent is struggling with work-life balance. These could include:
- An unsettled call, possibly a lot of background noise where your colleague may be unable to focus, or facing lots of unwelcome disruptions from a child
- Parents seeming tired, irritable, or in a low or unsettled mood - behaviour that might indicate that their work-life balance is suffering
- Trepidation about new tasks or projects can be a sign of job stress
- Low productivity, missing deadlines, or not being able to achieve work to the usual standard
- Lots of late-night emails and communications from a colleague (unless working hours have already been amended to support them)
If you notice these behaviours from working parents, it might be time for an HR intervention.
This could take the form of asking the parent what flexible arrangements would help them better balance their work and life, or speaking to line managers to ask for their workload to be reduced or changed.
To an extent this responsibility will fall to managers, but HR needs to ensure that they are enabling managers to identify the issue and also putting the measures in place for employees to feel able to communicate around the challenges.
Line managers, business leaders and HR all need to be having open conversations with employees about the specific challenges they're facing in juggling work and life. Without gaining a complete understanding of the work and childcare situation, and the impact it is having on your employees, it’s hard to make changes to the working environment to support your people.
HR needs to help foster dialogue about mental health for working parents, for example by creating surveys, sharing tips, and running sessions about managing stress levels and mental health. However, as HR professionals we need to be aware that some mental health initiatives don't benefit everyone in the workforce equally.
For example, a lunch-time virtual yoga session may be popular among employees without dependents.
However, it might not suit a working mother who has to spend that time feeding and taking care of a child. Rather, HR could help this working mother by offering the flexibility she needs by allowing her to work flexible hours or reduce or reprioritise her workload.
It's important for HR to consider who benefits from different types of mental health support and workplace flexibility, and plan accordingly.
Managers and HR need to be proactive with solutions and flexible with what’s happening around them.
Firstly, if you recognise some signs of stress, be conscious that parents may not want to ask for help, so being proactive is important. Don’t wait for your people to come to you asking for help – if you think they need it, provide it.
Secondly, if you speak to someone and it sounds like a busy or stressful time, postpone the call until a little later or offer alternative solutions. Flexibility can make people feel at ease and much more comfortable to have open conversations about the situation.
More often than not, you’ll find that parents who get to spend a couple of quality hours a day with their children get the peace and quiet they need to be very productive at their work during other hours.
There are a couple of types of workplace flexibility that employers can offer to help families.
One option is to reduce employees' working hours to fit their current situation. Another work option is to split employees' working hours. Maybe it suits them to work in an evening, instead of the afternoon, or earlier in the day instead of 9-11.
It’s important to try to identify with your employees what times are the biggest struggle and provide them with the flexibility to adapt their working day to suit, should the organisational structure allow.
One caveat is to be sure to remember your duty of care. If an employee is working late into the night and starting early, this isn't healthy behaviour. They’re inevitably going to burn themselves out from overwork. HR need to be considerate of this and be realistic about flexibility in employees' working hours.
The bottom line is that your people need downtime away from their job and children. If they don't get the flexibility they need, you can expect their productivity to suffer.
Organisations that use video calling will no doubt be used to chatting to their colleagues’ children by now. Most have welcomed it and have hopefully made it clear that this is okay. These are unusual circumstances so it’s great to let your people know that they don’t need to hide their families, and a child popping into the background of a call can be a great source of entertainment!
Even beyond Covid, it's useful to develop a culture of families being welcomed and appreciated at work. For example, this could involve social events where workers' family and children are encouraged to join in, or reminding employees that they can use flextime to support caring needs for their child.
This is especially important because one source of stress for working parents can come from comparing themselves to their childfree colleagues, who are often able to achieve higher levels of productivity than them.
A parent-friendly environment will not only help with employee satisfaction because mums and dads will feel that their family needs and responsibilities are respected. It will also encourage working parents to feel comfortable asking for the flexibility they need to take care of their child or children.
Failure demand is a huge time stealer – it’s the work that someone has to do because something wasn’t done right earlier on, or the correct system wasn’t in place to prevent the work.
This can be a huge time-sink for workers. To find out how to reduce failure demand in your workplace, check out the advice from our failure demand webinar.
Another alternative is to refocus workloads to ensure that people are only spending their time on the most important tasks. It’s easy to get bogged down with other things or get caught doing tasks that don’t carry the urgency of others.
Eisenhower's Urgent/Important Principle could come in handy here, or even a simple workload and priorities review with managers. It’s also a good idea for HR to make sure managers are on board, so that other tasks aren’t sent over that could interrupt employees' focus.
Maternity leave and paternity leave
In the UK, mothers are entitled to 52 weeks maternity leave and many qualify for 39 weeks Statutory Maternity Pay after having or adopting a baby. Mums also have the right to request changes to work hours, working days, and place or work when they return. Fathers may be entitled to up to 2 weeks paid paternity leave, paternity pay, or shared parental leave and pay.
HR and payroll departments need to be ready to help clarify and sort out any issues with leave for working parents.
Paid and unpaid leave
One option is for working parents to drop down to three or four days a week – whether that is via a temporary contract amendment or the use of leave. HR can discuss with working parents whether they would like to use paid or unpaid leave, holiday entitlement or other measures to help enact these changes.
This can help them create a healthy balance between work and life.
Whichever solution, or solutions, are right for your organisation and its people, HR needs to review this regularly. Even as governmental advice encourages organisations to end work-from-home and return to the office, juggling caring for a child while working has become more complex since the pandemic.
Working parents with young children will find it especially hard because over 11,000 nursery places have been lost due to closures during the pandemic.
Everyone will react differently, and need different solutions, so we need to remember that there's no one size fits all. HR leaders need to make sure that their organisation is being as flexible, proactive and considerate as possible during going forward.
The good news for flexibility in the workplace is that the Covid-19 lockdowns have forced employers to get on board.
While before the pandemic there was less understanding and support from managers for homeworking, many are now increasingly in support, although as HR professionals we understand that this brings unique issues including isolation and decreased identification with company culture.
Before Covid-19, 57.3% of managers said that employees should be physically present in the workplace in order to progress, whereas now only 37.5% managers believe that to be the case. Now, more than half of managers think that working from home increases productivity, whereas before the pandemic only 44.1% thought this was the case.
The pandemic has posed unique challenges to parents' work-life balance. Going forward, HR has the opportunity to make sure measures are in place to support parents' work-life balance.
With workplace flexibility becoming increasingly common and necessary for the work-life balance of parents, XCD's cloud-based HR and Payroll software can help streamline your HR functions for a remote and flexible working team.
HR software is especially useful for HR supporting employees juggling work and life commitments. For example, by storing all HR information and processes in the cloud which team members can access easily from the office and home, it's easier for parents to plan a mental health day, request time off, or schedule changes due to childcare responsibilities.
Using HRMS, HR can see real-time analytics and reporting about employee performance, which can help HR professionals identify issues. Or, HR can send pulse surveys to find out more about the wellbeing of workers, which can help the department figure out what support it needs to provide to improve work-life balance.
And, XCD's HR and Payroll software includes flexible timesheets and a work cycle tool that make it easier to track employees' work, even when their hours are irregular.
Book a demo of our HR and Payroll software today or check out our guide to writing a business case for HR software for your organisation.