How to support working parents through lockdown

Balancing work and family responsibilities was a challenge before the pandemic hit. But now many working parents have been hit with a full-on crisis. Whether it’s childcare plans that constantly change, concerns over protecting family health or the fatigue of longer working days, the uncertainty of the situation has challenged parents all over the world.

According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, about two-fifths of all families in the US have at least one child under the age of 18. 64% of those had both parents employed. This equates to around 30 million families. On top of this, there are 10 million single working mothers and 5 million single working fathers today who rely on schools to care for and educate their children in the US alone.

What’s more, when it comes to parenting responsibilities, women are continuing to bear more of the load than their counterparts. On average, full-time working mothers in two parent households are doing 22 hours of childcare on average per week during the pandemic. And that’s in addition to their everyday paid work. The shift towards working from home has meant parents’ responsibilities are accumulating – with different duties requiring their attention at the same time. The result? They feel overwhelmed, out of control and exhausted by it all. 

As we move into the second phase of the pandemic, it’s important to ensure that parents feel confident, connected and in control of their lives. It’s a chance to shape what parenthood will look like once the pandemic subsides.

For managers, this includes tangible ways to personally support parent employees to make that happen. Here are three ways you can lead with empathy as a caring leader:

1.  Know who you are talking to

Only 52% of employers actually track data on their employees’ caregiving responsibilities. But it actually affects 75% of the working population. Moreover, there are groups within your organisation that aren’t actively included in the working-parent dialogue, such as dads, millennials, LGBTQIA+ or parents of older children. This exclusion can make them feel even more isolated and misunderstood. 

So, don’t assume you know who the caregivers are in your workforce – take the time to do your homework.

Make space for people to share about their responsibilities outside of work. Show empathy towards everyone’s unique and individual situations. 1 in 5 parents have said that either they or their partner are considering leaving the workforce to care for their children. Keep in contact with your employees.  Encourage them to open up about any doubts they may be having so you can work through these with them.

2.  Listen

It might sound simple, but listening is key to providing employees with the support they need. In fact, 7 in 10 people expect their companies to be actively listening to them right now.

In practice, unfortunately it’s not always the case though. A recent report by Harvard Business School pointed out there is a “gross misalignment” between what caregiving employees want and what they are actually given. But around 30% of people have something that they want to say to their employers in this season, so the data to make a difference is there (Lifeed, 2020).

So, how can make listening commonplace in your team? Arrange to have weekly check-ins and meetings with your team where you can discuss any issues that they are experiencing, and how you can help accommodate their needs. Let your team members do the talking and show empathy towards their situation. This will help you to truly understand their perspective. It’s a chance to help them break down bigger issues into a manageable action plan. It’s about empowering them by giving them the tools they need to succeed.

3.  Encourage open conversations

Living with uncertainty is tiring – in fact 43% of people are truly feeling the mental fatigue this year (Lifeed, 2020). Caregivers especially will be feeling a certain weight of responsibility and heightened anxiety. Maintaining a work-life balance is very difficult for many, particularly those who have never worked from home before.

This is a vital time for support and not a time to be shy regarding mental health. Don’t be afraid to address it head on and encourage open conversations about it. Giving your employees this opportunity will build both trust and understanding amongst the team. It’s also important to recognise the signs of burnout amongst your colleagues, taking steps providing tangible support when needed.

A study by Compass found that new working patterns have placed a greater burden on caregivers which has particularly affected women. In June, more than half of workers whose working week had increased beyond a standard 37.5-40 hours a week. Those who also engaged in active childcare responsibilities were experiencing mental distress. Try having an open conversation with your team about presenteeism. Focus on productivity and clear outputs during the day so they feel able to truly “switch off” from work once the day is done and avoid the always-on culture.