Many things have changed in all our lives since the first UK-wide lockdown started in March 2020. Notably, the line between parents’ working and family lives has been blurred. 27 January 2022 marked the first Parent Mental Health Day. Stem4, a charity that supports positive mental health in teenagers, hopes that the day will encourage “understanding and awareness of the importance of parents’ mental health and its impact on the whole family system”. The day aims to provide parents with a moment to reflect on the balance of work and family in their lives and take steps to make positive changes. However, now is also a good time for employers to assess the needs of employees who are parents.
Last year, a study conducted in the US found that symptoms of burnout, a disease recognised by the World Health Organisation, were particularly prevalent among employees who are parents. The study found that working parents were twice as likely as non-parents to agree that they are worn out at the end of the day, find their work less interesting and feel that their work is insignificant. Research from Working Families in October 2020 also found that one in five working parents in the UK felt they had been treated less fairly at work due to their childcare responsibilities.
Another study conducted by Mumsnet and Harriet Harman MP in 2021 found that nearly 90% of working parents had taken time out of work to care for their primary school-aged children who were ill. 40% of those required to care for children took holiday leave, 30% took unpaid leave and 10% reduced their hours. Most worryingly, 2% reported that they had left their job because they needed to care for sick dependants.
There have been recent calls from trade union associations, such as the Trades Union Congress, for statutory sick pay to be extended to cover parents who need to care for primary school or nursery-age children when they are unwell. Currently, employers have discretion to decide to pay sick pay in these circumstances, and while many do so voluntarily they are not required to do so.
Steps employers can take
Last year, the CIPD provided advice to employers regarding how to support parents and carers in the workplace during lockdowns. Although COVID-19 restrictions are being lifted, these recommendations remain relevant. The CIPD’s advice is set out below.
- Follow the ECHR’s guidance
The ECHR has published a useful guide on employers’ legal obligations which aims to ensure that any decision made in response to COVID-19, including restrictions being lifted or introduced, does not directly or indirectly discriminate against employees with protected characteristics. Being a parent is not a protected characteristic. However, working mothers in particular may experience discrimination due to their caring responsibilities, which could be argued to be discrimination on the ground of sex. Those who are pregnant or new parents belong to a protected group. Therefore, employers should be mindful of any decisions they take that may negatively impact or which may discriminate against parents.
- Send an empathetic and supportive message from the top
The recent change in working life has particularly affected the way many parents work. This may be a relief to some and stressful to others. Senior leaders should let parents know that they empathise with the challenges working parents face, will support them and reassure them that their contribution to the organisation is valued.
- Consider and discuss different support options available
HR and managers should speak to their teams and discuss different options that may alleviate some of the pressures working parents may be under. Flexible working arrangements should be considered wherever possible. Employers should consult employees individually rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach in order to find the most workable solution for all parties. This may include paying of sick pay for those looking after nursery or school-aged children who are ill.
- Managers should be supportive and inclusive
Regular one-to-ones should be held between working parents and their line managers to discuss any concerns they may have in relation to balancing work and home lives. This also serves as a good opportunity to discuss and make any adjustments that are required in order for the employee to feel supported and able to work to the best of their ability. Measurable objectives should be set and the employee’s health and wellbeing should be a central focus and taken into account when setting expectations.
- Provide health and wellbeing support
All employees should know what support is available to them and how to access it. Large organisations are more likely to have programmes and occupational health schemes. However, links to charities and support services can be a helpful reference for employees at smaller organisations. A report published by Deloitte found that for every £1 spent on mental health services by employers, they saved £5 by way of reduction in absence and staff turnover. Employers who do not have mental health or wellbeing support services in place may wish to consider implementing such arrangements.
- Support parent returners
The workplace may now be different compared to when parents went on parental or maternity leave. Providing support for employees returning to work and preparing them for any changes in the organisation (for example, the introduction of hybrid working) will help them better prepare to return to work and allow them to raise any concerns they may have. The treatment of employees who take parental leave has been shown to have a significant impact on employee retention. A poll commissioned by Vodafone to assess how parental support can help organisations attract top talent found that one in five 18 to 34-year-olds have left jobs due to their employer having poor parental leave policies. Therefore, employers should be aware of how the treatment of returning parents may influence those who may need to rely on parental leave policies in the future. We encourage employers to review their parental leave policies to ensure they meet the legal requirements and to provide more support wherever possible.