What can employers do to help working parents in lockdown?

How can employers help working parents who are forced to homeschool during the working day?

Working mum with kids at home


A TUC survey last week said 75% of working mums who had asked for furlough for childcare reasons had had it turned down. Setting aside whether the survey’s focus on mums lets dads off the hook or whether it reflects the sad reality of whose jobs are most affected by all of this childcare thing, our experience from the first months of lockdown is also that the majority of parents asking for furlough for childcare reasons have had it rejected.

A session with HR experts Peninsula on Thursday suggested there is still confusion about furlough for childcare reasons. HR expert Kate Palmer said there was still confusion about the guidance because it conflicts with the regular furlough guidance which says furlough can only be used if an employer is severely affected by Covid. In many cases the parents who need furlough for childcare reason are in jobs that are able to function. That is precisely the point. They are being asked to work – often work long hours – while also teaching their children and they just can’t do it. If furlough for childcare reasons is not to be a right, backed by protection from being made redundant purely because of the childcare issues, there needs to be much more clarity about when furlough for childcare reasons can be used.

Different parents will have different circumstances and different capabilities. While one parent may be able to move their hours around or somehow make it all work another will not have the flexibility or the stress levels to be able to cope. They may face other issues too – anxiety about their own or relatives’ health, depression, other mental health issues, being a single parent, being a parent with no partner around during the daytime, etc, etc. Each individual case has to be taken on its merits and so employers need to know the person well enough to understand what the pressures are.

I was talking to a friend at the weekend. She works in social services where the situation sounds absolutely overwhelming. As they are public sector, they cannot use furlough, but they are using every other permutation, from redeploying staff, flexing [at weekends and evenings, for instance, where possible], using annual leave and, if all that runs out, they are allowing parents extra leave. That puts additional pressure on those staff who can work, who may feel some resentment even if they don’t voice it. I mentioned Zurich’s allowance of 10 extra paid emergency days off for parents. Was that going to be enough, I asked. She said parents should just take whatever help their is and take each day as it comes. What is happening this week may change completely by next week. That is the only way to operate at the moment.

We spoke about how you get yourself and your kids through each day. Sometimes it is the small things that help, routine small things that you can look forward every day and every week. A friend asked about what else employers can do besides flexing work, redeployment, parental leave, letting employees buy more holiday and so forth in the absence of furlough for childcare reasons being a right – and therefore available not just to employers who are open or have the resources to do all the flexing, extra leave, parenting networks or fora to share ideas and rant etc – and there are things that make everything easier.

Cutting the number of meetings is important. You may want to check in daily, but it may be stopping people getting their work done. Social zooms may seem like a great idea, but at the end of a day of teaching and working, perhaps you just need to switch the computer off. Ask people what they need. Keeping meetings short is another key one. It is a nightmare being on endless calls that go on and on when you are aware your child needs help to do a particular task and will lose interest 10 minutes after you go on the zoom call and start playing Nintendo. Allowing time sufficient time gaps between meetings is another. Allowing people to go off screen and to mute if they need to. Grouping meetings in core hours so parents can get kids set up in the mornings with school tasks and can develop some sense of routine for kids.

Again, it works best if different team leaders talk to their teams and find out what works best for individuals. Talk to people and work with what you’ve got. This will end and you want people to not come out of this completely traumatised by the experience not just of the pandemic itself, the worry about jobs and the collective, omnipresent sense of grief, but also about how they have got through the worst of the lockdown weeks.

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