With the government refusing to say if schools will be reopened, even after the Easter holidays, already fatigued working parents now face becoming overwhelmed by many more months of juggling work with homeschooling.
During the last lockdown, which saw schools closed for five months from the middle of March, working parents at least had the benefit of lighter, warmer days, enabling them to work from early in the morning, before their children woke up, until late at night, so they could teach in the afternoons, according to trend data from the ONS.
Understandably, this took a toll, with levels of stress, depression and anxiety among parents shown to have increased significantly under both this and the last lockdown, according to the Economic and Social Research Council.
This time, working parents – mothers in particular – one in seven of whom have had their requests for furlough refused by their employer, risk becoming overwhelmed if the opportunity to flex their hours remains the only solution. So, what else can you do to help?
1. Offer adaptive, not just flexible working
Flexing hours isn’t enough, especially since fitting a working day around schooling young children might be possible for weeks at a time, but it’s not sustainable for months on end. That’s if you don’t want your working parents suffering from burnout.
Instead, encourage managers and individuals to focus on maintaining, or even improving their personal effectiveness, by focusing on their output instead of the hours worked, where possible. Encourage them to think about what three things they can do this week that will have the biggest impact, and add the most value, both at work and for their family. Helping them to focus on doing less more effectively will also help them to reduce stress levels and feel like they’re still succeeding despite the scale of the challenge ahead.
Progress, not perfection, must be the mantra. Striving for perfection can be a destructive force at the best of times, compared to the empowering attitude of simply striving for progress. Workshops can also be used to reinforce this value and educate working parents on the importance of not making life more difficult than it needs to be right now, and how to focus on wellbeing and success instead.
2. Help people avoid slipping into gender stereotypes
When schools last closed, women overwhelmingly found themselves taking on most of the responsibility for homeschooling, looking after children for an average of 10.3 hours a day (2.3 hours more than fathers) and doing 1.7 more hours of housework than fathers.
This meant, on average, they could only do one hour of uninterrupted paid work for every three hours done by men. This also resulted in working mothers becoming more stressed and anxious and 47% more likely than men to have quit or permanently lost their job, according to research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).
To help prevent the same thing happening again, HR has a vital role to play when it comes to shifting the focus from supporting ‘mothers’ to supporting ‘parents’ and ensuring men are given the same education on how to apply for flexible working, unpaid parental leave and furlough, often only given to working mothers.
Women who are feeling overwhelmed also need to be encouraged to think about what they want from their career and the life they want to create for their family in the long term, instead of just how hard things are right now, and what support they need from their partner or family to cope.
3. Hold coaching conversations
For those individuals devastated by the news that schools might not be reopening even after Easter and unsure how sustainable the solution they currently have in place is, it can be helpful to coach them through what they think they should do, and offer listening, empathy and understanding, instead of advice or solutions, to create a safe space where they can vent their anxieties.
Most people already know what would work best for them and just need a coaching conversation, and to be asked questions like ‘What one thing will improve your situation?’ or
‘When you look back on this period, what do you want to be saying about it?’ to empower them to say what they want.
It can also be helpful to let them know about other solutions that weren’t available during the last lockdown, such as the option for families with children under the age of 14 to form a childcare bubble with another household to provide informal childcare or support bubbles that allow single adults to mix with one other household.
If the parent is worried about trying out a new approach to what they did in the last lockdown, and more focused on what could go wrong than what could go right, a coaching conversation, or group workshop with individuals in a similar situation, can also help them to alleviate their anxieties to create a more sustainable plan going forward.