Katherine Heffernan | 11 Feb 2021

How are employers supporting working parents during lockdown?

The latest lockdown measures have seen millions of families make the shift back to home learning. While schools remain open to vulnerable children and some children of key or critical workers, and teachers work hard behind the scenes to provide a remote learning offering, in practice many parents, especially those of primary-aged children, are once again having to juggle their professional responsibilities with overseeing schoolwork. In England and Northern Ireland schools remain closed following the Christmas break and are not expected to reopen until 8 March at the earliest. In Scotland and Wales, meanwhile, it is hoped that schools will start to reopen for some children, primarily the youngest, from 22 February.

The social, health and economic implications of the pandemic have been difficult enough for many employees to cope with even without the added challenge of overseeing home learning alongside usual work commitments. But there are steps that organisations can take to ease the burden on their staff and with this in mind, we set out to discover what employers have done to support working parents during the latest lockdown. Our survey was completed by 40 respondents, from a range of sectors, 58% of which have some employees who count as key or critical workers for the purposes of obtaining a school place (in practice, the ability to avail of key worker spaces may be affected by school policies and individual family circumstances).

Mental wellbeing

Almost all respondents (98%) report that they have taken specific steps to support employees’ mental wellbeing during the pandemic. While this frequently involves reminding staff how they can access existing provision, such as employee assistance programmes, trained mental health first-aiders or online information, new measures have often focused on creating opportunities to foster and maintain social connections between colleagues, such as virtual coffee mornings or online chat channels. Some organisations are actively seeking to monitor employees’ mental wellbeing by making this the focus of staff surveys and undertaking stress risk assessments. Most activities in this area stand to benefit the whole workforce, not just working parents, although some, such as guidelines around meeting scheduling and conduct, may have their specific needs in mind. Some employers point to the importance of such messaging coming from the top, with senior leaders emphasising the need for greater flexibility and understanding for staff at this time.

Changes to working patterns

Continuing with the theme of flexibility, three-quarters of employers have actively invited staff to make temporary changes to their working patterns to accommodate home-learning responsibilities. In practice – and bearing in mind that such changes are not always recorded centrally, possibly masking the full picture here – this most commonly takes the form of informal flexitime arrangements (58% of organisations), while 43% have seen staff make temporary changes to shift patterns and 28% have allowed some staff to reduce their working hours temporarily to help balance work and school responsibilities. Where staff have temporarily reduced their working hours, several respondents are continuing to pay them at their full rate. Few organisations have put any rules or guidelines in place regarding ‘core’ hours that must be worked, instead allowing employees the flexibility to arrange work and home-learning commitments as best meets their needs.

Statutory provisions

Our survey findings show that only 30% of organisations have actively reminded staff of their statutory entitlement to request unpaid parental leave while fewer still (16%) have highlighted to employees that they can apply to take furlough under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme for childcare reasons – possibly missed opportunities, given that such schemes need not entail any additional costs for employers (although two respondents have temporarily improved their parental leave policies in response to coronavirus, such that some or all such leave is now paid, while a handful of others include parents in their broader carers’ or dependants’ leave policies). 

Managing workloads

Where working parents have reduced their working hours or taken furlough, what happens to the work they would have done? The most common approach to handling the remaining workload (75% of organisations) is to reschedule some of those individuals’ priorities or deadlines to later in the year. In around three-fifths (63%) of cases, some work has been redistributed to colleagues who have absorbed this into their existing workload, although a further 29% have paid remaining staff to work additional hours. Only a quarter of these employers report that they had intended to furlough some staff anyway, while 8% have had to appoint new staff to handle the outstanding tasks.

Mindful of the potential disruption to employees’ productivity levels, a quarter of respondents have amended their performance-management practices in some way due to the pandemic – for example, by delaying appraisals or taking a more ‘light-touch’ approach for the time being. Meanwhile, specific measures have been put in place at just over half (51%) of the sample to help line managers support team members affected by coronavirus.