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Parental support must extend past parental leave

For working parents, coronavirus has meant taking on the role of teacher while schools were shut, while also having to adapt to remote working themselves. They were essentially left with two full-time jobs over the six months in lockdown.

With schools now open, businesses may take the view that these two jobs have again become one. In reality, there is still much that needs discussing around parental support moving forwards, especially considering Boris Johnson’s latest announcement of a second lockdown.

This will have a huge impact on many working parents across the country.

The new challenges for working parents

Among other factors, it was the lack of childcare available during the pandemic that took a mental toll on working parents, with both mothers and fathers being pressured to return to the office.

Worries about the future of childcare is understandably leaving parents even more stressed – given that, pre-COVID, only a third of local areas had enough holiday childcare for full-time working parents, with high and increased prices. In addition, 17% parents are ‘seriously considering’ keeping their children out of school.

A new issue is darkening the outlook for many working mothers. Experts are also warning of a ‘pandemic motherhood penalty’, an umbrella term created to encapsulate the multitude of issues that contribute to mothers’ inequality in the workplace.

This includes the lack of flexible work or equitable parental leave policies for fathers and mothers; the ‘chores gap’, where women shoulder the lion’s share of unpaid care and domestic work; the lack of access to affordable childcare; and gender-based discrimination, including pregnancy discrimination.

This ‘penalty’ has existed for many years, but COVID-19 could exacerbate the troubling trend. Only half of businesses published their 2018-19 gender pay gap report this year, a move that could reportedly push gender equality back a whole generation.

Working parents are facing particularly challenging times – and businesses must actively engage in conversations with mums and dads about how they can best support them, with the ultimate goal of achieving a healthy work-life balance and avoid burnout.

Switching off the always-on culture

One point needs to be made clear to businesses in order for these conversations to happen: remote working is not the same as flexible working.

When it comes to balancing jobs and home life, being at home all day does not offer working parents any more flexibility – in fact, it blurs the lines. And, even though remote working has shown to have benefits, it has also sparked another conflict.

Without a clear distinction between being in the office and being at home, working parents have had to juggle the responsibilities of both, while operating in the same environment. This in turn has caused a rise of the ‘always-on’ culture.

Continued remote working policies is definitely a start when it comes to addressing this – given that recent surveys show that only 5% of working parents want to return to the office, while 55% would choose to spend no more than three days there.

But just giving the option to work from home is not enough. Employee support should go past company policies – which are only the tip of the iceberg. Cultural change, supported by line managers, is a substantial influencing factor. Working parent coaching can also become instrumental in helping retain working parents – especially when their children reach a certain age.

Ongoing parental support is an employer’s responsibility

It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that coaching and other forms of support are solely for parents starting or returning from parental leave. In reality, there are crucial moments through all stages of parenting – particularly around children going to and leaving nursery and primary school – that working parents should have support in addressing. And, at some point, businesses supporting parents extends beyond them, as it also then becomes support for their children.

It’s important to remember that children are always there – even when they cannot be seen. In essence, businesses and leaders must support working parents throughout every step of their children’s journey – even when their journey is less visible, and when people are back in the office.

Throughout every scenario and stage, high-quality, expert parental coaching, for both mums and dads, is a key enabler of talent progression. It also helps to achieve a more equal gender balance at senior levels. Coaching enables parents to work out the best ways to combine their professional responsibilities with their personal commitments from before a child’s arrival to long-term career sustainability.

Rather than backslide, now is the time for bold and open conversations – and businesses must be ready to listen and spark real change. Especially now, as the pandemic has altered people’s considerations about the companies they work for whilst shifting family priorities.

Among other factors, lockdown has led many people to re-examine their careers, futures and the way they want to work. Any businesses not offering sufficient support and company culture could find their high-talent individuals leave them behind for more forward-thinking firms – which will be devastating for long-term company success.

Lucinda Quigley, head of working parents, Talking Talent