Benefit program offers virtual child care for parents in a bind
Working parents have been dealt a difficult hand during the coronavirus pandemic: Tasked with balancing work, home and child care responsibilities, many are buckling from the pressure.
“COVID has made life in general really difficult, but it’s exceptionally difficult for parents,” says Priya Amin, founder of Flexable, a virtual child care benefit provider. “Millions of day cares have been closed, the education system has been completely upended. It’s caused a tremendous amount of stress and overwhelm for working parents.”
Since the start of the pandemic, working parents have lost a cumulative 720 million hours of work productivity per week, due to the stress and anxiety associated with caregiving, according to a study by family benefits platform Cleo.
Finding accessible and consistent child care has been an on-going challenge for parents during the coronavirus pandemic. The Cleo study found that just 21% of working parents had consistent child care, and 42% had partial child care coverage. Thirty-four percent of working parents had no child care at all.
“All of the support systems that used to be available for parents have all gone away,” Amin says. “Instead of drop-in day care or calling a neighbor or friend or family, all of those responsibilities fall solely on parents.”
While both working mothers and fathers are shouldering the demands of working and caring for children at home, women are more consistently taking on the greater share of responsibilities. Working mothers are more than twice as likely than men to say that they handle more than 50% of caregiving and education responsibilities, according to Cleo.
“It’s time to accept the reality that working parents need more from us now than they ever have,” says Sarahjane Sacchetti, CEO of Cleo. “One of the challenges HR and benefits people face is deciding to do one thing and invest more in one audience of your population. But COVID has pushed us to the brink.”
The overwhelming workload is forcing many parents to either leave or consider leaving the workforce entirely: as many as two million women are considering taking a leave of absence or leaving the workforce altogether because of COVID challenges, according to McKinsey.
“This isn't just an issue for women. It's an issue for families, and it's an issue for the government and economies because it drives GDP,” says Jennifer Reynolds, a former investment banker and CEO of Toronto Finance International.
Employers have a crisis on their hands that needs to be addressed with accessible and flexible child care benefits, Amin says. Her company, Flexable, provides on-demand virtual child care. Parents can log into the platform and book 30-60 minute blocks of time for their children to be engaged with a virtual host. The hosts play games, perform magic tricks and provide other inventive and creative ways to entertain children so parents can work without distractions.
“I'm working constantly, and my six-year-old drew this picture of him asking me, ‘Mommy, are you done?’ The mom says, no. That’s everyone’s life right now,” Amin says. “Kids are really looking for that validation and that interaction with adults that they may not be getting from mom and dad. So we want to engage and support these kids and their parents so they can get work done without feeling guilty. They’re not putting on another YouTube video.”
Backup child care benefits can be one of many tools employers offer to help support employee well-being during the pandemic, Amin says.
“The average working parent is losing three hours per day in productivity. It’s terrible because you feel guilty that you’re failing at everything,” she says. “We’re on a mission to say, if we can even give one of those hours back, what type of effect can we have, not only to the bottom line of an organization, but to the well-being of that parent.”
Employers including PwC, Maven, Microsoft, Cleo and others have expanded their benefit offerings to provide more time off, backup child care reimbursements, tutoring sessions and more flexibility with work hours.
For working parents, the pandemic has been a challenge, but it’s also provided an opportunity to share their struggle and ask for help, Amin says.
“The child care crisis has been around for decades, but now there’s a universality to that experience,” Amin says. “In the past, the majority of the burden still fell to working moms, and now that burden is shared by [all] working parents. It’s affected people at the management level, to people who are hourly workers. This has affected everyone.”
As employers look ahead to life beyond COVID, the challenges working parents face will persist, Amin says. Ensuring employees are supported and allowed flexibility with their work hours is an important step to retaining this population.
“Hopefully parents will continue to feel empowered enough to speak up and say, I need support. Organizations are stepping up and creating these avenues to provide what they need,” Amin says. “From the highest level down, there should be a compassionate ear that understands and meets parents where they are.”