How to effectively support working parents during a crisis

Helping employees maintain health and efficiency during a crisis requires flexibility, empathy, and consistent communication.
By Malia Politzer

How to effectively support working parents during a crisis
Image by Trina Dalziel/Ikon Images

Since it started, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the difficulty of maintaining a work/life balance for many. The closure of schools and day cares across the country created unique challenges for working parents, forcing them to juggle full-time jobs with the responsibilities of supervising small children or helping older kids with remote learning.

Research shows that dilemma is particularly fraught for working mothers, with one study finding that mothers with young children reduced their work hours during the pandemic four to five times more than fathers.

However, the pandemic is not the only crisis that will lay bare the difficult choice between work and family. There will be other upheavals in the workplace. Another pandemic could happen, research shows that the frequency and severity of natural disasters are increasing, and social, economic, and political pressures can disrupt the workforce. The lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic illustrate that organizations need to effectively prepare themselves for future crises. By supporting their employees during times of crisis, organizations can maintain employee health, increase resilience and efficiency, and help them attract and retain talent.

Crises such as the pandemic not only make it harder for working parents to commit to a full-time work schedule but also cut into leisure and social activities that help employees recharge and relax. As a result, working caregivers, especially women, are working fewer hours, are more stressed, and are more insecure about their careers.

This has raised alarm bells for employers concerned with retaining valuable talent.

"I think what is at stake is potentially losing a percentage of your workforce — particularly when the burden is hitting parents, who tend to be experienced workers," said Lauren Florko, a development consultant based in Vancouver. "And anytime you lose employees, you'll also lose productivity. It's a downward spiral."

Luckily, companies can put policies into place to support their employees with children or other family members to care for during challenging times without sacrificing efficiency. Below are some of the best practices outlined by researchers, industrial psychologists, and leaders in finance.

Flexibility is key

Perhaps the single most helpful thing companies can do for working caregivers is create flexible work policies that allow employees to determine when and how they complete assignments, according to all of the experts interviewed.

Flexible work policies can take different shapes depending on a company's unique needs. Some companies create "core work hours" (say 10 a.m.—2 p.m.) during which all employees are expected to be on call for meetings or to connect with supervisors, but allow employees to fit in the remainder of their work hours when they can. This allows parents to work around meals, bedtime, or their children's remote class schedules.

California-based BPM Accounting and Consulting Firm — which has been named one of the "Best Places to Work in the Bay Area" and a "Best CPA Firm for Women" on numerous occasions — took it one step further and implemented an entirely flexible work schedule. This meant that employees were free to arrange their work hours whenever it best suited their individual schedules — even if that meant logging hours in the middle of the night or on weekends.

"We knew that things are challenging for our people right now and wanted to do what we could to support them," said Jim Wallace, CPA, the CEO of BPM. "The first thing we did was expand the traditional workweek. So long as they work with their supervisors and meet their deadlines, they can work whenever they want."

Not all companies are in the position to offer this degree of flexibility. But even firms with essential workers can create policies that take into account the needs of parents, many of whom continue to struggle with child care.

Take the example of South Dakota-based 1st Financial Bank USA, which has both remote and essential workers (bank tellers, etc.). In order to accommodate its essential workers, the bank adopted a one-week-on, one-week-off work rotation that allowed flexibility to manage caregiving duties.

"It came down to a fairness mindset, as these were people who couldn't work remotely and were putting themselves at risk," said Lindsay Stevenson, CPA, CGMA, the vice president of finance for 1st Financial Bank USA. "Rotating schedules was our way to support these employees, and it also helped parents who needed to find child care solutions."

Industrial and organizational psychologist Lucie Kocum, Ph.D., recommends that companies also consider allowing employees the option of working part time, or opting for a "job share," in which they split the full-time schedule with another worker. For some employees with kids — particularly single parents or those with small children at home — such policies can be a lifeline at a time when balancing work and child care responsibilities can feel impossible.

"Obviously, this isn't optimal for a lot of working parents who depend on a full-time income, but it's better than being forced to quit," she said. "And it's also a way for companies to hold on to talent."

Reevaluate work policies and benefits packages

Executives should also work closely with human resources to review company policies and benefits packages as conditions change for working families.

"This is a good time to make sure that everyone has full paid leave, comprehensive health care, and access to mental health support," said Kimberly Acree Adams, Ph.D., an industrial and organizational psychologist and executive coach based in Pennsylvania. "Personal days are also going to be important, as people may need to use them to care for children or for a loved one who is ill."

HR can also provide support to employees who are struggling to find child care solutions: That might mean doing the heavy lifting of looking for and vetting potential day cares (if day cares are still open) or discussing whether to offer employees child care subsidies or stipends to bring in a baby sitter to watch children during important meetings.

For example, BPM historically has offered parents support for emergency babysitting services, including a $200 credit to cover expenses and paying the monthly membership fee for the services. In light of the challenges brought on by the pandemic, the firm also reviewed the benefits packages it already had and took steps to make the packages more robust by switching to a mental health provider that offered more comprehensive services tailored to pandemic-related challenges — including support for issues specific to parents.

BPM also opened a Yammer channel for parents, where employees with children could offer one another moral support and share what was working for their families.

Wallace also makes a point of regularly expressing empathy for the challenges that his employees face in his weekly email and video updates and making it clear that leadership is open to suggestions on how to make their lives easier during this difficult time.

"Again and again, we tell our workers that we know they are going through a lot," he said. "We can't change a lot of things — we can't make schools or day cares reopen, though we wish we could — but we can show that we know that they are struggling."

Set clear expectations

Research shows that good relationships with direct supervisors are key to employee satisfaction. Never is that truer than during a crisis, when traditional work routines are upended.

Supervisors can help working parents in a number of ways. To start, they can set crystal-clear expectations around deadlines, communication, deliverables, and productive hours in the context of remote work, according to Stevenson.

"In my own experience, when you are in a time of crisis, it feels like you need to be 100% available for all roles of your life," she said. "This is particularly true for parents, who feel the need to be on call to their kids and employers 24/7, which can quickly lead to burnout. A clear message from the top can really help with that."

To ensure that people feel taken care of, but that deadlines are still met, Florko recommends that companies consider adopting a "person-first" approach, in which the focus is on how to manage the workload, rather than micromanaging individuals.

"A person-first approach requires a lot of communication and coaching," Florko said. "Supervisors try to understand their team members' unique challenges and needs, and help create individual solutions that help address those challenges, but still ensure that the work gets done."

That might mean allowing a team member who has younger children at home to skip nonessential meetings during school hours and do most of their work at night, or temporarily redistributing tasks to relieve pressure on workers who are under strain at home.

"Supervisors need to have open and honest conversations with the full teams about what feels fair and to be clear on what is really non-negotiable to get the work done, versus what is nice to have, but not totally necessary," Florko said. "Like, do I really need to have a videoconference? Or can parents be dialed in with one earbud while they are cooking food or being attentive to their kid?"

Kocum also advises that supervisors and executives with children normalize a family-friendly work culture by taking advantage of benefits themselves. For example, male executives or supervisors should take paternity leave, use flex time, and take sick leave when needed.

"It's about modeling it from the top," she said. "Particularly if a male in a leadership role takes leave, it can go a long way in removing the stigma of using these resources."

Kocum also advises supervisors to manage inclusively, and that entails accommodating parents as part of a diverse workforce. Managers and employees should have clear and open discussions about top priorities and work together to find flexible ways of achieving them, she says. "Yes, it's possible that not all work will get done, but the most important work will get done, and well," Kocum said. "The key ingredient here is trust."

And she points out that employers who treat their workers well now are fostering loyalty in their staff, who will be less likely to leave once the pandemic is over.

(Workers who have other caregiving responsibilities need support, too. See the sidebar, "Supporting Employed Caregivers Without Children.")

Build a culture of communication

Because there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution for working parents, it's critical that companies create multiple channels of communication that allow employees to give feedback on what's working for them and what additional support they may need. This can be particularly key for working mothers, who may be hesitant to draw attention to any struggles balancing work and parenting duties for fear it could affect career advancement, according to Kocum.

Direct supervisors are often the first to hear if team members are struggling and can make it easier for employees to raise concerns by doing regular check-ins and sharing their own struggles.

"Managers that lead with 'How are things going?' and 'What can I do to better support you to get these things done?' are going to get more honest feedback," Kocum said. "Obviously, work still needs to get done, but this approach helps team members feel taken care of and positions them for success."

HR should also keep detailed metrics on new company policies aimed at supporting employees during a crisis — including parents — by having employees fill out detailed feedback surveys that go beyond asking "How happy are you with this policy?"

"Surveys need to ask things like 'How did you like this tool? Is it working? What could be better?'" she said. "This way you are focusing on the positive without washing away the negative. It's about deliberately taking a growth approach."

Adams also recommends that leadership encourage employees to connect to HR if they don't feel comfortable speaking directly with supervisors.

"The key is to create a culture of openness and communication where the employee feels safe being honest about their situation," she said.


Supporting employed caregivers without children

Not all employees with caring responsibilities have children. Some may have aging parents at home, while others may be looking after loved ones recovering from COVID-19 or struggling with long-term illnesses.

Many of the policies helpful to parents can also be beneficial for employees with other caregiving responsibilities — for example, flexible work policies and the option of working reduced hours or part time, and paid time off. In addition to these, Lauren Florko, a development consultant based in Vancouver, recommends that HR departments review current policies around the Family and Medical Leave Act vacation, and sick leave to make sure they provide adequate coverage for employees with different types of caring responsibilities.

For example, HR can provide support to employees caring for elderly family members who need help researching, screening, and accessing elder care services by connecting them to geriatric counseling services, assisted-living assessment, in-home assessment, etc.

Companies might also consider offering flexible benefits programs that allow employees to adapt policies to their unique needs — for example, opting out of a vision benefit and instead choosing nursing aide services.

“Not all carers need the same accommodations or benefits,” Florko said. “Cafeteria-style plans can be a lifeline for employees who have unique caregiving responsibilities that wouldn’t necessarily be covered by standard benefits packages.”


About the author

Malia Politzer is a freelance writer based in Spain.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, a JofA senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.


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