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For working parents, a return to work (and back again) is stressful

October 19, 2021 - 7 min read


To call the past 20 months “stressful” is an understatement. Businesses closed, people were forced inside, and kids were sent home from school. For months, there was no end in sight.

Working parents carried the weight of this stressful shift. Those who didn’t lose their jobs became remote employees in a matter of days, forced to set up shop on kitchen tables and makeshift desks—all with kids underfoot. 

Working parents who couldn't work from home had it even worse. They balanced unknowable risks to find childcare while they worked outside the home or left kids to navigate remote learning on their own.

Early 2021 was better. It brought a COVID-19 vaccine, and signs of a return to some normalcy, but the process of returning to work has been slow to follow.

Some companies (like HubSpot) are building a hybrid work model, offering employees a few options—to work in the office 3+ days per week, 1-2 days per week, or not at all. Those who elect to remain remote only have to visit the office about once a quarter, including those who lived nearby. Other tech companies such as Salesforce have announced employees may stay remote "forever," although most have not given up maintaining some office space.

Some companies have announced full reopenings and the expectation of return to the office. 

Other companies are trickling in employees based on the physicality of their roles, with those who require specific equipment or whose work is premises-based (e.g., janitors, IT, security) allowed to come in first.

How organizations are managing mask and vaccine mandates greatly varies. Some organizations are instituting a non-negotiable mask mandate, while some are allowing vaccinated folks to remove their masks. Companies like United Airlines and CNN require in-office employees to be vaccinated, with the potential of terminating employees for not following the rules.

Despite a mass return to work, employees still feel uncertainty around what this looks like for the remainder of 2021—especially as children return to school. With recent case spikes due to the Delta variant—a more contagious strain of COVID-19—and the specter of further variants, some companies, communities, and school systems are rolling back plans. Recent regulations that made return to work seem to be just around the corner are once again in question.

Many working parents survive by a heavy reliance on routine. Busy work and school schedules demand consistency in dependable transportation and after-school care. Parents returning to work need to know that all of the other parts of life are returning as well to make all the pieces fall into place.

For working parents, the return to work—and subsequent changes—is exceptionally stressful. 

In addition to ever-changing work schedules, each day brings new twists as schools wrangle how they’re starting the school year, how they're handling everything from pictures to parent conferences to community-building. Meanwhile, every week brings new exposures that send children home for days at a time and require trips to get testing.

That the degree of uncertainty and agility required on the home front often isn't understood by colleagues without children can leave working parents feeling stressed and alone.

At BetterUp, we believe that working parents need support. We offer an entire coaching line specifically for working parents. This gives us a unique window of insights into their lived experiences and stressors.

What the data say

We looked at our working parents and their specific trends in coaching topics. Well-being is always at the forefront of support needs for this group.

But, we saw a particularly interesting trend that coincided with the US national trend of “returning to work”: a significant spike in sessions around well-being. These sessions tend to focus on topics like stress management, self-care, and work-life balance.


Sessions on Well-Being increased between April and August … when companies were calling employees back to the office. 

We also saw a spike in sessions for Career Development and Communication during the summer months, likely as working parents were looking to communicate with employers about how returning to work was affecting them, their families, and their careers.

What it means

The pandemic may have waned during 2021, but it’s far from over. Spikes in COVID-19 cases have forced many to consider wearing masks again. Some may elect to receive a COVID-19 vaccine booster

COVID-19 is still top of mind for everyone. Case spikes have caused employers to waffle on calling employees back to the office. In turn, working parents are stressed. They’ve sought support and coaching, more so this past summer than any other point in the last 12 months. 

While organizations may be struggling to decide the right thing for their employees, customers, and bottom line, they must remember the toll it takes on people, especially working parents. If your business can’t provide a clear answer on how the “return to work” looks in the long run, extend additional support to working parents. Check in with those who have kids at home or in school, consider offering (or continuing to offer) additional child care benefits, and offer the flexibility to work from home as necessary. 

Not only are working parents struggling with uncertainty with their own schedules; they’re battling uncertainty with school and child care schedules, as well, which makes this time exceptionally difficult to navigate.

In a time when some 50% of workers report planning to leave their current jobs, companies need the talent and skills of the working parents in their ranks. Most companies can't afford to say, "not my problem," while parents opt out of the workforce or seek more flexible and supportive employers. How organizations and leaders support working parents now will send a salient message to this population about how valued they are. 

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Published October 19, 2021

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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