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Supporting working parents: Making the “impossible” possible

January 18, 2022 - 14 min read

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What are the challenges faced by working parents?

The state of working parents today

Why organizations should retain working parents

7 ways employers can support working parents

If you’re responsible for hiring talent at your organization, you’re probably feeling the crunch of the Great Resignation. While it may be more of a "great reshuffling," millions of people are deciding to leave their jobs for a multitude of reasons.

The most unsurprising exodus probably comes from working parents. Asked to juggle virtual learning while working from home and providing care, many are simply buckling under the pressure of having to do it alone.

But they shouldn’t have to do it alone — and in fact, they don’t have to. Companies that want to retain both their employees and their competitive advantage can’t afford to lose the caregivers in their midst.

Learn how you can reduce the burden on working parents at your company and help them feel supported, valued, and a sense of belonging.

What are the challenges faced by working parents?

Working parents carry responsibility in many parts of their lives. By definition, they have to provide care for their children while keeping up with the demands of their jobs.

But they’re also responsible for the unseen mental load of managing a household, helping with schoolwork, and staying connected to their partners. This leaves very little time to focus on the other major responsibility in their lives — that is, their own health and well-being.

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A 2021 study on working parents published in the International Journal of Human Resources Studies indicated five main areas of concern: work-life conflict, stereotyping, exhaustion, changing work schedule, and career growth opportunities.

1. Work-life conflict

Balancing the needs of both home and work has always been challenging. However, the pandemic made it even more difficult for working parents to tread this tightrope as they took on the additional role of facilitating homeschool. 

Most working parents rely on consistent access to childcare in order to be able to work. They rely on work in order to pay for childcare. With schools and daycares first closed, then open on an off-again-on-again basis, parents can no longer rely on their primary support system. 

Moreover, with many industries permanently affected by coronavirus, some can’t rely on their primary means of income, either.

2. Stereotyping

Being a parent is a responsibility that often must (and should) come before responsibilities at work. This is especially true for those who have young children, since they need constant care. 

Parents often fear that because their attention is divided, they are seen as less committed to their jobs. This might be (erroneously) reinforced if their workplace has a culture of presenteeism, where more hours at work are rewarded as a sign of higher productivity.

3. Exhaustion

Working one job is tiring. Working three jobs is nearly impossible. Yet, that’s the state that many parents find themselves in as they try to play the roles of caregiver, teacher, and employee simultaneously.

Across the board, when a ball needs to finally be dropped, it tends to be self-care. Parents are getting up earlier, multi-tasking more, and going to bed later in an effort to fight one simple, inevitable truth — there’s just not enough hours in the day to do it all themselves.

4. Changing work schedule

To accommodate the unpredictability of parenthood, many working parents need flexibility in their schedules. However, that means it might be difficult to take on extra shifts, adapt to a new work schedule, or manage overtime.

Trying to balance a changing work schedule — along with the inconsistent availability of childcare — often leaves parents feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and as if they’re scrambling to keep up.

5. Career growth opportunities

In any new role, there’s a period of adjustment, learning, and change. Unfortunately, dealing with constant change and uncertainty at home can make the idea of career growth sound — frankly — unappealing. 

Even for parents that have their sights set on career growth, however, they may find themselves without the time to pursue it. They also may be subject to stereotyping from colleagues who may feel that an employee’s child care responsibilities might “get in the way” of doing their jobs.

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The state of working parents today

Two weeks of lockdowns turned into two years of shifting regulations, guidelines, and rules — with childcare mostly treated as little more than an afterthought.

Working parents are losing millions of hours each week to “stress, anxiety, and caregiving.” By the end of 2020, nearly 65% of families found themselves without childcare outside the home. That number has likely improved somewhat over the past year, but any gains are affected by new variants and changing safety requirements.

Although parents of all genders have been impacted, data from the last two years shows that these imbalances largely fall on working mothers. In September 2020, more than 865,000 women left their jobs to devote time to caregiving and family responsibilities. The ones that remained are less likely to feel satisfied with their careers or their work-life balance.

By the beginning of 2021, the Census reported that about 10 million American mothers of school-age children were not working. Women of color (specifically Asian, Black, and Hispanic women) were twice as likely to be affected as white women.

Why organizations should retain working parents

There’s a prevalent myth that working parents aren’t as career-oriented or capable as non-parents. That’s simply not true. Not only is it possible to be a great parent and a great leader, but it’s actually more likely. A 2019 study on motherhood and leadership — aptly titled Reframing Motherhood — found that 75% of mothers believe that parenting has made them better leaders. 

Jennifer DaSilva, president of Berlin Cameron (the organization that led the study) notes, “The skills that you develop as a parent — empathy, multitasking, flexibility, understanding, time management, communication skills, staying calm under pressure, and many more — are all skills needed for being successful in the workplace.”

It’s no wonder, then, that even non-parents who worked with managers who were parents found them to be better in all of these areas.

As Shelley Zails shrewdly summarizes in her article for Forbes, “The best leaders today are caregivers, and yet we’re losing our best leaders to caregiving.”

With the Great Resignation putting a crunch on the amount of available talent in the workforce, it’s critical that we find ways to better support and retain our working parents. That means rethinking our work environments — from parental leave to hybrid work — to make it possible for people with children to thrive in all areas of their lives.

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7 ways employers can support working parents

With parents making up about 40% of the workforce, employers can’t afford to be cavalier about recruiting and retaining caregivers. Workers will continue to be more particular about the employers they choose to work with, prioritizing the ones that embrace them as both assets and people. That means putting consideration into the needs of working moms and dads, in — and out — of their roles.

Here are 7 ways that companies can support working parents:

1. Develop a thriving hybrid culture

It’s not a stretch to imagine that remote work and hybrid offices are here to stay — and that they’re a top choice for working parents, who prize flexible work arrangements. However, just firing up a Slack channel doesn’t ensure a thriving hybrid workplace. Pay careful attention to your employees and what they need to feel supported, both in and out of the office. Put special effort into helping them feel connected, since remote workers can easily feel isolated and out-of-sync.

2. Create employee resource groups (ERGs)

Employee resource groups are peer-led communities designed to support specific populations within a company. While they often center around demographics, like race, gender identity, or geographic location, they can also be supportive for employees with similar lifestyles. Your team may find an ERG geared towards working parents to be invaluable.

3. Encourage asynchronous work

A great way to promote flexibility is to promote and encourage asynchronous work. While it’s important for teams to have opportunities to connect in real-time, these meetings shouldn’t be so numerous that they cut into focus time or create a hardship on your employee’s schedule. While you’re looking at the calendar, be sure to consider teammates that work in other time zones. Try not to schedule meetings when they might be rushing kids off to school, going to bed, or eating dinner.

4. Offer family-friendly benefits 

Pay is important, but so are benefits. The type of benefits you offer your employees reinforces what you feel is important. Offering benefits that support the entire family, like healthcare, dependent care, and family leave, helps parents plan for their family’s needs as well as their own. A flexible PTO policy gives parents some wiggle room in taking time for themselves as well as time to care for a child.

5. Encourage Inner Work®

With so many things needing their attention, parents don’t get a lot of time for self-reflection and self-care. Support them by encouraging Inner Work® — the quiet, internal practices that fill their cups and make the “outer work” they do more sustainable. You could offer an Inner Work® day once a quarter, or designate certain times as “meeting-free” so they have some time to reflect. 

6. Call in professional support

In the best of times, parenting isn’t easy — but current events and managing a career create additional levels of complexity. Consider bringing in backup for your working parents. Partnering with BetterUp allows you to offer unlimited access to specialist coaches, who have experience supporting working parents. They can teach them how to improve work-life balance, care for their mental health, and keep up with the demands of work in a sustainable way.

7. Don’t rush “back to normal” 

Two full years and several variants later, the pandemic is still happening. There’s a lot of pressure to move towards whatever the “new normal” will look like — but truthfully, it’s just as murky as it was at the beginning of 2020.

It’s fine to share your plans for the future, but don’t share so much that you needlessly and prematurely stress your team. For example, if you’re planning on a return to the office or a big company offsite, you might be excited to spread the news. Your working parents, however, might immediately begin to worry about childcare arrangements.

As much as possible, try to wait until plans are certain before disclosing them to your team. Even though it’s stressful for everyone — not just caregivers — to be unclear on future plans, parents will appreciate that you consider their childcare concerns (and their already-taxed mental health).

Although we all thought that lockdowns would only impact business for a limited time, the challenges that affect working parents existed long before COVID. As we look towards the future of work, pandemic or no pandemic, it’s time to seriously consider the well-being of millions of parent families and how to make it possible for them to succeed — at work and at home. As we’ve learned, we can no longer separate our work-selves and our home-selves. But when we bring our best selves everywhere we go, every part of our lives gets a little bit better.

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Published January 18, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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