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How organisations can support the working parent shift

How best to support working parents has been uppermost in HR’s mind during the pandemic, as many have struggled to juggle jobs and home-schooling.

But supporting staff with family responsibilities is not just about allowing the flexibility people will still need as the gradual journey back to a more ‘normal’ working life begins.  Employees also need help balancing their professional and parental identities.

Making the transition from a worker to a working parent can be challenging at the best of times.  Relationships (both personal and professional) change, people often feel a loss of status and struggle to regain their identity.

There’s a real tension between work self and home self. On the one hand, parents want those around them to recognise them as a whole person who has responsibilities outside of work – but at the same time, they also value having a professional identity separate from their role as a parent.

Organisational initiatives tend to focus on helping people manage the practicalities of juggling work and home life, but there are actions employers can take to help support the psychological shift too.

At Hult International Business School, we have been looking at the psychological challenges and experiences when making the shift from worker to working parent.  Early findings from the first stage of the research, which has focused on collecting the stories of working parents, has suggested the following approaches could help parents achieve better balance.


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Recognise the span of parenthood

Employers tend to focus on supporting parents in the early stages of returning from maternity leave.  But it’s important to recognise that challenges continue throughout parenthood. 

The arrival of a second child, for example, or the shift from nursery to school, can make childcare arrangements more complicated and may call for more flexibility than previously needed. 

Experienced working parents need support as much as new returners – it’s just that the nature and timing of the support may be different, and their feelings about their ‘work self’ may vary as parenthood unfolds.


Move away from one size fits all policies

Everyone’s situation is different. Trying to enforce a standard policy for working parents is like trying to force a square peg into a round hole.

HR needs to give mangers the autonomy to take an individual approach and to work alongside the parents in their team to find creative solutions that meet both individual and business needs. 

The pandemic has served to blur the boundaries between our personal and professional identities more than ever before. There is a danger that the sense of work self can be lost when those boundaries are taken away.

If employers want to get the best from their working parents, they need to acknowledge the dual identity often felt by employees and help them find ways to juggle work and home, both mentally and practically. 


Create support networks

Working parents tell us they have benefitted enormously from sharing stories and learning from the experiences of their colleagues. Internal support networks can be a valuable tool to help parents connect, discuss difficult emotions, and share any challenges, both psychological or practical, they may be experiencing. 

Mentoring or buddying programmes are also a great way for more experienced working parents to support those at earlier stages.


Carina Paine Schofield is senior research fellow at Hult International Business School