Following the UK Government’s announcement this week of a new lockdown period and the closure of primary and secondary schools, working parents are once again having to grapple with the challenges of balancing work with childcare and home learning for their children.

The pandemic has had a negative impact on working parents

Data from the first lockdown shows the negative impact of the pandemic on working parents. ONS data on parenting in the lockdown that started in March last year, showed that many parents had to change their work routines around childcare, and that parents were at significant risk of furlough.

Research by Working Families in October 2020, also found that 1 in 5 or 2.6 million working parents in the UK felt that they had been treated less fairly at work because of their childcare responsibilities since the onset of COVID-19.

Working mothers, in particular, have fared badly

IFS/UCL research last year showed the impact on working mothers in particular, with mothers being more likely than fathers to have left paid work since February. Among those doing paid work at home, mothers are more likely than fathers to be spending their work hours simultaneously trying to care for children.

In addition, BEIS evidence suggests that discrimination faced by pregnant women and new mothers before the pandemic was high and is likely to be accentuated by the pandemic. Data from a Pregnant Then Screwed survey of almost 20,000 mothers and pregnant women in July this year found that 46% of mothers being made redundant blame a lack of childcare provision during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is therefore really important that working parents are properly supported through this challenging period to reduce any longer-term negative impacts on their employment, career prospects, and to support gender equality and help organisations retain valuable talent.

So, how can organisations step up their support at this challenging time?

Employers must recognise that many parents could be struggling to work due to the latest round of school closures and should have plans in place to support them during this demanding time. We think there are six key areas, where support can be stepped up.

  1. Follow the EHRC's guidance

    Firstly, we need to ensure that we are applying non-discriminatory practice in decision-making around things like furloughing, redundancies, and short-term working. The EHRC have recently updated their guidance to remind employers about the importance of this – do take a look – as an employer it is a useful tool. It includes information on redundancy procedures and selection criteria, pregnant women, and those on maternity leave, amongst other areas.
  2. Send an empathetic and supportive message from the top 

    It is important that senior leaders let working parents know that they understand the challenges they are facing and are empathetic and supportive. This will help to make working parents feel valued and will also give line managers greater confidence in supporting their individual team members.
  3. Talk through the different support options with working parents

    HR professionals should encourage line managers to have regular catch-ups with their team and discuss the options available to those juggling work and childcare/ home-learning. This could include a range of flexible working arrangements (such as staggered start and finish times or compressed hours), altered role responsibilities or for part-timers to split their hours over more days.

    There is no one-size fits all solution and that is why it is really important to talk to parents about what options would work best for them. People’s challenges are likely to be different depending on the age of their children and their learning needs. Certain sectors and roles are also likely to lend themselves more easily to flexing work and home-learning than others.

    If these solutions don’t work, then employers should also discuss with employees whether taking furlough, parental leave or some unpaid leave/ holiday would be helpful. It is worth noting that in relation to parental leave, parents are legally entitled to 18 weeks of unpaid leave for each child or adopted child, up to their 18th birthday.  A limit of 4 weeks for each child can be taken in a year and the leave should be taken as whole weeks unless the employer agrees to greater flexibility in taking individual days.
  4. Make sure line managers are being inclusive and supportive

    All employees will benefit from inclusive and supportive managers and the principles of good people management are important here. Managers should:
    • Hold regular one-to-one’s with employees to discuss any work and personal concerns.
    • Make any adjustments (such as flexible working) that are needed at home or in the physical workspace.
    • Set clear objectives and manage by outputs rather than inputs.
    • Maintain a focus on employee health and wellbeing.
    • Review whether working practices are going well for both the individual and team.
  5. Draw working parents' attention to any health and wellbeing support you have in place

    Make any health and wellbeing support you have available clear to all employees. Larger organisations might have access to Employee Assistance Programmes or Occupation Health that could be beneficial to working parents who might understandably be finding the current circumstances challenging. Smaller organisations without these resources could provide links to useful charities and support services. Overall, it’s important to remind all employees about the importance of maintaining their physical and mental wellbeing and the importance of taking regular breaks, fresh air and exercise.
  6. Support parent returners

    It is also important that any parents returning from parental leave are properly supported through this period. The workplace will look and feel very different for people that have been on parental leave, so it’s really important to prepare them for that and to be regularly communicating about strategy, values, health and safety. If parent returners will be working from home, ensure that they are given training and virtual onboarding processes.

Government support

Finally, we are interested in member views on what further support, if any, might be helpful from the Government for parents during this latest lockdown period. For instance, we know that children from poorer households found it harder to do schoolwork in the previous lockdown – the availability of paid leave for parents might make a tangible difference here.

Our findings so far suggest there is most support for parents to have ‘the right to work flexibly’ during this lockdown period (77%), followed by having the right to be put on furlough (46%) and over a third supporting the provision of up to two weeks government funded paid parental leave (36%). Only 7% felt that no extra support should be provided.

The CIPD view is that flexible working practices should be the norm- not the exception -for all UK workers and with that in mind, we are launching a campaign next month, calling on the Government and employers to make the right to request flexible working a day one right for all employees.

About the author

Claire McCartney, Senior Policy Adviser, Resourcing and Inclusion

Claire specialises in the areas of equality, diversity and inclusion, flexible working, resourcing and talent management. She has also conducted research into meaning and trust at work, age diversity, workplace carers and enterprise and has worked on a number of international projects. She is the author of several reports and articles and regularly presents at seminars and conferences.

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