Why ‘back to school’ doesn’t mean parents can be ignored at work

Beckett Frith
Beckett Frith

Senior Content Officer, Mental Health at Work

As children return to school for the last term of the academic year, we explore what challenges parents face in the workplace year-round, and what employers can do to help.

As the Easter holiday draws to a close and and the school term begins once more, many parents and guardians can breathe a sigh of relief. Getting back into a routine and not having to worry about changing childcare arrangements might help you or your staff feel more comfortable and in control of your personal lives.

However, school can’t fix all the stresses and strains that parents and guardians experience. Maintaining a work/life balance while caring for children can be difficult, and many parents feel that they are forced to choose between the needs of their family and the needs of their workplace.

Parents are really struggling to find childcare that will work with the hours their employer want them to work

Working Families is a work/life balance charity which aims to remove the barriers that people with caring responsibilities​Supporting working parents and carers Web page While everybody can have challenges in their lives, parents often face additional responsibilities and difficulties that can make their working lives harder. This web page suggests ways employers and managers can help parents in their organisation.Free By: Confederation of British Industry View resource face in the workplace. Lucy Devine, head of communications and marketing for Working Families, says that parents, and anyone who has caring responsibilities for a family member, often have to do a balancing act to be able to meet the needs of their job with their caring roles.

“We are hearing a lot at the moment from parents who are really struggling to find childcare that will work with the hours their employer want them to work, which obviously causes a lot of anxiety and stress,” she says. “Either they don’t have those arrangements in place, or the pandemic has disrupted their care and they are struggling now to find local, affordable alternatives.”

She adds that while we are slowly returning to ‘normal’ for many people in terms of going back to offices or school, COVID-19 is still causing worries for parents and carers. “Regular testing is still a big part of life for school children and parents are having to deal with the logistics of staggered school starts and possible need to isolate,” she says.

A grandmother and granddaughter

However, as an employer, there are steps you can take to support your staff who have childcare responsibilities. Steve works as a bid manager for an IT security firm, and is a father of three children – one who is at secondary school, one at primary, and one who was at nursery school until this month, when they also started primary school.

His employer has been supportive of his needs as a parent. “My work let me take a shorter lunch to allow me to leave a bit earlier,” he explains. “Just fifteen minutes early means I miss all of the traffic and can pick my children up. I still end up home an hour earlier than I would have if I left at five and sat in traffic, missing pickup time.”

Your colleagues see you slink off at 4:45 and think you’re a part timer

Steve’s middle child is autistic​Autistic burnout explained Web page ‘Autistic burnout’ is the intense physical, mental or emotional exhaustion, often accompanied by a loss of skills, that some autistic adults experience. This article explains what autistic burnout feels like and what might cause it in the workplace.Free By: Spectrum View resource, and this means he often has additional responsibilities to ensure their needs are met. However, his workplace lets him make up missed time as required, and makes allowances if he needs to spend his lunchtime on childcare duties.

“45 minutes of my lunch tend to be phone calls to the head, or midday pickups, so work don’t mind that I end up eating during meetings or whatever to just keep going,” he says. “They know I hit deadlines when I need to, and the work gets completed, so in the rare time I have to work late they don’t have any problem.”

However, this level of flexibility can sometimes create a new kind of stress or anxiety. “Your colleagues see you slink off at 4:45 and think you’re a part timer, forgetting they took a full hour off [for lunch]!” Steve explains.

A mother hugs her child.

If you’re an employer or manager looking to make your workplace more parent-friendly, there are some simple steps you can take. Lucy suggests that the best employers are getting rid of rigid rules around locations and hours, and are instead working on having open conversations between employees and managers about how to find a balance that suits everyone. “That might mean flexing hoursFlexible workingThere are many forms of flexible working. It can describe a place of work, for example homeworking, or a type of contract, such as a temporary contract. Other common variations include: part time working, flexitime, job sharing and shift work....Find out more to avoid busy commutes, or a hybrid model​Hybrid working Web page The pandemic has changed the way many of us work, with more people working from home than ever before. This web page from Acas is designed to offer advice for employers on how to consider, discuss and introduce hybrid working.Free By: Acas View resource of some time worked at home and some in an office or workplace,” she says.

However, there are many jobs that employees need to be in a particular location, such as a building site or a shop floor. But Lucy explains that even in those jobs, flexibility is possible, around flexing hours, part time work and job shares.

“Having employers who are open to those conversations – whatever size the organisation – is hugely beneficial for parents and carers, and means the organisation gets the benefits of improved retention, productivity and access to a wider pool of talent,” she adds. “As we come out of the pandemic, it’s vital employers have human conversations​Conversations about painful subjects Web page Trauma can overwhelm someone's ability to cope. This guide is designed to help NHS line managers encourage their staff open up about potentially traumatic things they have seen at work.Free By: NHS England and NHS Improvement View resource that look at all their staff member’s own circumstances.”

It’s worth considering at this time of year that parents will be starting to look ahead to the summer, and consider how they will arrange childcare to cover the long break. Take this opportunity to remind staff of any support you offer to help them manage this potentially stressful time.

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