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Special leave should be for all employees not just parents and carers

With boundaries between work and home life blurring into one, how can businesses support their employees with balancing it all?

The new year didn’t get off to the promising start many of us had hoped for. With COVID-19 cases on the rise, the UK is, understandably, back in lockdown.

The restrictions are causing immense challenges for many working parents and carers, who are often balancing home schooling with their professional demands. A recent survey by the TUC of 50,000 working mothers showed that 90% felt their anxiety and stress levels had increased during the latest lockdown.

Around half of the mums (44%) said they were worried about the impact that having to take time off work would have on household finances and 25% were using annual leave to manage their childcare.

It’s not just working parents who are facing a difficult juggling act, the boundaries between work and home life have become increasingly blurred for many of us during this period of virtual working.

According to a recent YouGov poll, 38% of Brits think it is harder to strike a work-life balance when working remotely. Mental health and wellbeing have never been more prevalent issues.

So how are companies tackling these challenges? How can employers best support their people, while also managing the demands on their business?

One of the approaches we’ve taken at EY has been to extend a period of special leave to all our people. Anyone can now take up to two weeks of paid leave (which is in addition to a normal holiday allowance) if they need time out of the business in emergency situations.

It’s open to all our people – not just working parents – as we know difficulties can come in many forms.

Executive assistant Alison Martin-Campbell used the special leave after both her elderly parents passed away within three weeks of each other. She used the time off work to make arrangements to organise their joint funerals, and to clear her parents’ home in preparation for selling it.

She says: “I was really struggling. After a discussion with my team leader, I arranged to take the maximum amount of special leave to help me get through this unbelievably difficult time.”

We’ve also been encouraging our people to make use of flexible working – something we have advocated for many years, but which has been invaluable during the pandemic.

It’s about empowering people to choose how and when they work, regardless of whether that’s to accommodate home schooling or to take time out to exercise during the day.

But special leave and flexible working can only ever take you so far. The challenge for line managers and companies is often much deeper than that: how can you truly know how employees are feeling and whether they are coping when you are not seeing them regularly in person?

For timesheet-based organisations, it’s relatively straightforward to monitor the hours that someone is working. But it doesn’t show you the other commitments they are balancing at home or if they are struggling to cope.

While remote working can bring greater flexibility, it’s important to ensure that people aren’t burning the candle at both ends. It is inevitably harder to physically see how colleagues are doing, as watercooler moments or chatting across the desks don’t happen naturally while working from home.

There is no easy fix for this. But it is vital that managers are checking in with their teams regularly to ensure they understand the demands their people might be facing both inside and outside of work.

We’ve been working with our teams to raise awareness of these issues and to ensure they are thinking about the behaviours they need to adopt. Personal interactions that we once took for granted in an office environment now require conscious thought and effort to replicate in a virtual world.

We are all facing different pressures during the pandemic, whether that’s parents juggling home-schooling, people living alone, or grieving for loved ones.

As employers, special leave policies and flexible working can go a long way to help. Empathy is absolutely key and is something that all businesses can be encouraging – it doesn’t always require big budgets but does require conscious thought.

Justine Campbell is UK managing partner for talent at EY