The social restrictions have lifted, but the recovery from fatigue will take parents some time. Now more than ever, organisations have a key role in remedying burnout.
I recently attended a Zoom webinar, where the presenter was co-hosting with his toddler, to combine childcare and work. Through the session, his son just made a few background sounds and to our delight made a smiling appearance on camera to say hello. I left the webinar pleasantly surprised at seeing this diversification in ways of working.
This paradigm shift, to greater flexibility for working parents, has become far more evident since COVID-19. Rightly so, it’s been a phenomenal year for parents – from home schooling and social restrictions, to the benefits and challenges of extended at-home family time. As barely manageable as it has been for families, it would have been much harder without the support of employers.
Now, as we prepare to return to the office, we must acknowledge that we are not the same workers that we were last spring.
How could we be? What we have been through socially and psychologically, as a direct result of the national lockdowns and rules, has changed us, as well as our society. Especially for parents, there has been a rethink on attitudes towards work and home.
Historically, in heterosexual relationships, looking after children was predominately viewed as a woman’s responsibility, perhaps stemming from an era when women did not enter the workforce. Pre-pandemic, the tide was already turning, with the majority of millennial dads reported to be fully involved with day to day parenting. Then following the COVID-19 outbreak, a quarter of working men stated they were now doing more childcare than before, and most wanted to continue doing more.
It’s been remote working that has allowed for a greater involvement in parenting. However, as recently as 2019, two in five fathers who applied for flexible working had their requests turned down by employers. Some argue this partially derives from an ingrained bias about gendered parenting roles. This figure of course, takes no account of the many dads who weren’t even aware that they had a legal right to request flexible working arrangements.
Unsurprisingly, research revealed that only 56% of dads believe that fathers are treated equally to mothers in the workplace, when it comes to flexibility. Consequently, they have been struggling to balance work and parental responsibilities, which inevitably takes a toll on mental health.
Despite the belief that mothers are better supported in their employment, their mental health has nevertheless been impacted. Earlier this year, nine out of ten working mums surveyed, reported that they are experiencing increasing levels of stress and anxiety. Yet this is only to be expected, as when the schools closed repeatedly, it was widely acknowledged that they acted as the ‘shock absorbers’ for parenting and education.
The kids have now returned to school, but the fatigue from what parents have been through may take longer to heal. Additionally, over the coming years, we’ll see parents bear the burden of the impact of school closures on children and young people’s mental health, as well as the knock-on effect of their educational catch-up.
It will be parents who will be dealing with the fallout.
Already, nearly half of parents are feeling burnout from the effects of home schooling and working, according to a poll, commissioned by Good Morning Britain. It will be businesses who will be ultimately paying the price of a stress riddled workforce. Forward-thinking companies have already recognised this, and alongside preparing to roll out some form of flexible, or agile working practices, they have been considering what else they can do to meet the needs of their returning employees.
Some are providing specific support for parenting issues. A good example is the BBC, who last year partnered with Parent Cloud to give their staff access to online and face to face resources, on topics like child behaviour, infant sleep, mental health and postnatal coaching.
Of course, support services are only as impactful as employees’ awareness that they exist, and their willingness to use them. Often it is line managers who are the key to staff members utilising support, because they are usually in a position to notice wellbeing issues or be confided in by employees that are struggling.
Taking this on board, some HR teams have been encouraging managers to attend virtual drop-in sessions, designed to help them openly discuss concerns and get advice easily, on how to support their employees with any difficulties they are facing.
As many organisations have realised, working parents do require business support, if they are to be resilient and remain productive, whilst maintaining their home and work responsibilities. Moreover, family life is a much higher priority for workers, of all genders, than before the offices closed. As we enter a period of fierce competition for top talent, and with employees now demanding a more flexible approach from businesses, having a reputation as an employer that is family friendly, is fast becoming a business imperative.
What can employers do?
Recognise the unique struggles that parents have had during the pandemic and listen to individual concerns. Each employee will need tailored support based on their circumstances.
Remind employees of the support and policies available for carers. People may not differentiate between support for parents, and for parents who are also carers. It’s especially useful to clarify how you define a carer, as parents of children with severe mental health conditions, may not identify themselves to be one.
Train your line managers in soft skills. With colleagues facing so many different types of challenges, these skills will better enable line managers to fulfil their people responsibilities.
Facilitate peer support. An internal network for parents can be helpful at many levels. It can go a long way to reduce the feeling of being alone and promote a culture of openness and empathy.
The Bank Workers Charity website contains a range of material and interactive tools to support wellbeing.