The working parent crisis is getting worse — here’s how employers can creatively support their caregivers now

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No working parent could have predicted one year ago the emotional roller coaster that 2020 would bring. COVID-19 didn’t just throw a wrench into the lives of working parents; it threw a boulder. As CEO of Cleo, and a mother to two young children, this is a roller coaster I’ve been forced to ride (and struggled with) myself.

Back in March when schools began to close down, COVID-19 felt — at worst — like a temporary inconvenience. Homeschooling, Zoom links, and missed assignments put a dent in our working lives and weighed heavily on our conscience, but we endured it with the assumption that light would soon appear at the end of the tunnel. By April, reality settled in and so did our new routines. While difficult to manage the juggle, there remained a small glimmer of hope that things would normalize (or some burdens would be alleviated) by summer.

Today, the rose colored glasses are shattered. Five months into this new reality, things have gotten worse for working parents — much worse. Findings from a recent study conducted by my company demonstrate a decline for working parents since April:

  • Only about 35% of families reported they have some form of childcare coverage (compared to 50% in April).
  • Only 28% have had outside help from family (compared to 53% saying they intended to get help from family in April).
  • When asked how productive employees feel compared to pre-COVID-19, 30% of people feel less than 50% productive (compared to 25% in April).

Early plans for childcare have yet to materialize, and the continued slog is taking its toll on working parents. As school districts announce their plans to continue with virtual learning this fall, it’s clear that we are on this roller coaster for the long haul.

While recent developments — like Biden’s proposal to invest $775 billion into caregiving programs — are encouraging, to-date, few policies to support families have been enacted by the current administration. Lack of childcare combined with homeschooling has an impact on companies’ bottom lines and employee retention. While many companies have historically provided support with childcare, many of those models do not work in today’s environment as parents move away from center-based care due to health and safety concerns. The current childcare crisis is negatively impacting working families:

  • 1 in 3 families have a parent that has either left the workforce, or dropped down to part-time (in 70% of the cases, this was the female partner/mother).
  • Increasingly, parents are scaling back their work; Respondents in June were four times more likely to plan to return on a part-time basis rather than full-time (compared to April).

Companies are already losing critical talent, and when homeschool resumes this month we can expect these numbers to rise. Employers can not sit idle waiting for a resolution, or worse, leave it up to the parents to figure out. This isn’t a personal issue, it’s a societal issue — and it’s on every employer to come to the table with creative solutions.

To this end, there are opportunities for employers of all sizes to get to work to stave off a parent-drain in our workforces. Here are some suggestions:

Survey your parent community. The best way to know the right course of action is to understand the specific challenges your parent community is dealing with. Is one parent shouldering more of the childcare responsibilities than their partner? In addition to productivity, how is their mental health? We found that in 95% of the surveyed households, the female parent/mother was doing at least 50% of the caregiving. We also found that women were 2.5x more likely than men to indicate that mental wellness is a challenge as a working parent.

Understanding these challenges can inform actionable and targeted solutions. Drawing from best practices from our own member surveys, my team recently compiled a working parent and caregiver survey template that can help guide employers through this important first step.

Redefine work flexibility and company norms. As COVID-19 disrupted the “typical” workplace, we are already seeing companies explore ways to increase flexibility for employees to complete their work responsibilities and balance other life responsibilities. With many people now working from home or struggling from a lack of childcare or in-person schooling for children, flexibility with work (when, where, how, and by whom work gets done) is an important discussion. Flexible work options may make the difference for someone considering leaving the workforce or scaling back to be able to continue in their role.

At Cleo, we have worked to acknowledge and normalize the reality that certain conference calls may be interrupted by young children. My four year old occasionally pops up in calls. Many working parents can relate to this scenario, and by helping to normalize these occasions that may not be avoidable, we contribute towards a more accessible workplace for those with caregiving responsibilities.

Reinvent your budgeting process. Now is the time to take a critical look at your budget, and move money around to areas that best meet the needs of your employees. If you invested heavily in a center-based childcare facility previously, consider moving that money towards other types of childcare options that are lower risk and more feasible in the WFH era, such as co-op family matching or babysitting concierge services.

Lead with transparency and honesty. Have an open and honest dialogue with your parent community about the crisis; let them know you understand their challenges and share how you plan to better support them. Once you identify specific solutions, be transparent with your parent community that these solutions are a temporary solve. Even if your proposed solutions aren’t a perfect fix, your proactive efforts to alleviate burdens will be better received than standing idle in an effort to preserve established customs.

While there’s no playbook for how to handle the Working Parent Crisis of 2020, an open mind and a willingness to make the necessary adjustments will go a long way in keeping our parent communities happy and thriving.

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Employee relations Employee retention Employee productivity Voluntary benefits