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How to help working parents navigating back-to-school

September 14, 2021 - 6 min read


It seems like just as we settle into the rhythms of summer, the season is over. For working parents, the transition to fall brings an abrupt deadline. Suddenly, it’s time to stock up on school supplies, help children adapt to a new schedule, and get to know new teachers — all of which needs to happen at the exact same time. 

And then, of course, there’s the pandemic. In an American Psychological Association survey last year, 63% of parents reported that the 2019-20 school year was extremely stressful due to the pandemic. And 77% parents of children ages 8 to 12 reported feeling stress related to uncertainty about the 2020-21 school year. 

Now, many parents are bracing for another challenging year, filled with questions about the risks and benefits of returning to the classroom, distance learning, and how to keep children and vulnerable loved ones safe. Whether they talk about it or not, many parents are worried and conflicted about the choice between exposing children to risk of infection and the social and learning loss of keeping them at home. 

Add in the additional logistical challenges of health checks, varying mask requirements, and restrictions on parents visiting the school or speaking live to classroom teachers, and many parents are finding this particular transition challenging. 

Considering all that working parents have on their plates, it’s no surprise they are feeling the pressure this fall. At the same time, many of them aren’t feeling a sense of support from their organizations. 


What the data say 

BetterUp Labs tracks member data over time, and one of those data points is employees’ sense of organizational support for well-being over time. Last year, among 1,530 BetterUp members who self-identified as working parents, the September back-to-school transition correlated with a drop in parents’ sense of support. 

According to this year’s data, we’re on track to see another decline in employees’ sense of support as fall approaches. It should be noted that perceived organizational support has been gradually declining, starting in April.

When you consider the extra stress, logistics, and emotions that parents may experience with this transition, it’s easy to see how this time of year could leave many feeling overwhelmed. Meanwhile, most organizations are still providing either the same support or perhaps even pulling back from the flexibility and concern of the early pandemic. The result is that working parents feel an absence of support or understanding at just the time when they are struggling with a significant transition challenge.

Throughout the pandemic, parents have faced a tough juggling act. Increased caregiving demands and heightened stress took a toll last year. According to data from Cleo, working parents in the U.S. lost nearly two hours of their workday to caregiving and another 1.2 hours to stress and anxiety. That amounted to a total of 720 million lost hours every week. At least 25% of working parents considered changing jobs to make balancing their dual roles easier.

Under even the best circumstances, the start of a new school year can be a challenging time for families. But now as parents and children enter the third consecutive school year affected by the pandemic, many employees may be especially sensitive to how their organizations and leaders respond and support them.

chart of working parents organization support from july 2020 to july 2021


How to support working parents 

Managers can help the working parents on their teams make it through this adjustment period. Paying attention to employees’ needs, treating their concerns with empathy, and coming up with solutions can help retain great employees and help teams thrive. 

Here are some key ways to support working parents: 

Offer flexibility with schedules and remote work. A recent FlexJobs survey 61% of parents would prefer to work remotely full-time, and 37% would prefer a hybrid setup. Employers can relieve some of the pressure workers feel by allowing them to choose their own schedules and work from home when it suits them. Some parents might excel with an early-morning shift, a split-shift schedule, or a four-day week. 

Perhaps even more important is giving parents the flexibility to change their schedule day to day or week to week — parenting during COVID means being prepared to accommodate the unexpected. Parents face the possibility every day that a child will be sent home to be tested, to quarantine, or that a school or afterschool program will close unexpectedly. Giving workers more flexibility can help them manage their workload while also responding to both the normal and more extreme day-to-day ebbs and flows of family life.

Promote work-life balance by respecting healthy boundaries. Eighty-two percent of working parents surveyed by FlexJobs reported that work-life balance is the most important factor they consider when evaluating a new job. Managers can lead by example by creating and maintaining clear boundaries around work. Encourage employees to use their vacation days, to take mental health days when needed and to refrain from checking emails or taking work calls when they’re off the clock. 

Maintain an open dialogue that addresses well-being. Employees shouldn’t feel they have to hide their personal challenges or suffer in silence. Managers can help workers feel supported by asking them one-on-one how they’re feeling and lending a listening ear. Remember that in addition to the logistical challenges, whether they talk about it or not, many parents are worried and conflicted about the choice between exposing children to risk of infection or the social and learning loss of keeping them at home. Creating a safe space for employees to talk about their well-being can help you better understand what individual workers need to do their best work and foster a culture of well-being. 

The dip we see in working parents’ sense of support this time of year suggests a need for more frequent check-ins and compassion in the workplace. When employees feel overwhelmed and stretched far too thin, a little more listening can go a long way toward helping them feel less alone.

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Published September 14, 2021

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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