Companies Aren't Taking Care of Parents and Non-Parents Alike. That's a Problem
“I can’t do this anymore!”
That was me, about three weeks ago, as my six-year-old daughter returned to school. After one week of virtual classes, she had beat me like a prizefighter. My head hitting the pillow every night was like a knockout blow.
I found many sympathetic ears for my cries of agony, from coworkers who were not parents to clients who had older children and tried to imagine how they would’ve dealt with these unique times. And, of course, trading stories with fellow parents in the same boat helped me feel like I wasn’t completely losing my mind.
Working While Parenting Is Being Addressed
While I would gladly trade many prized possessions for safe, in-person school, there is no doubt that many employers are acutely aware of the challenges my colleagues and I are facing while trying to work and parent.
Companies are rethinking benefits like child-care assistance as they prepare for long-term work-from-home. They are offering tutoring to children struggling with remote or hybrid learning environments. They are even thinking more holistically about how they deal with the variety of challenges working parents are facing.
Of course, the effects of daycare and school closings put millions of parents into crisis mode and pushed those issues to the top for organizational leaders. When a significant portion of people can’t work because there’s a baby hanging off them or a child who needs extra guidance, companies are going to try to figure it out.
The problems are far from solved, though.
The pandemic has affected women harder and working mothers even more so. So many of the support structures that allowed working couples to both work rely on services like in-person child care, camps and school. Not only that, a survey found that 41% of working parents fear job loss and 57% say they fear the will be the first group to be negatively affected by employer decisions.
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Non-Parents Pick Up the Slack
There may be a reason to worry about being the first to be affected by job disruptions. Childless colleagues are picking up more work. At least, that’s the perception, even by parents who are doing their best within the circumstances.
That’s creating a rift at work with non-parents reportedly feeling resentful. Three separate stories in The New York Times, CNN, and CNET over a single week earlier this month highlighted the challenge.
Non-parents deal with assumptions about their availability and capacity to do more, even with no change in compensation. When they aren’t as accommodating or as empathetic, they come off as selfish. Complaints about indefinitely taking on more work are lesser issues in the scheme of things, at least in the eyes of organizations.
It isn’t fair to have people shoulder additional burden simply because of their situation in life but that’s precisely what has happened. When their issues are minimized or ignored, that continues a rift that will only grow by the month.
These Times Are a Challenge for Everyone
The pandemic isn’t the only thing going on, and childcare disruption isn’t the only challenge an employee can face. Older workers may have children temporarily living with them and they may be called on as caregivers themselves. They may be coming up on retirement and can be consumed with worries about the economy. Other workers are facing significant concerns about financial wellbeing, too.
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There are real health challenges and concerns for employees in industries that have reopened — or never closed. For those in sensitive groups, their circumstances may be a matter of life and death. People of color can be affected by civil rights actions sweeping the nation, with a similar feeling of concern about their wellbeing.
Overall anxiety about work is up across many groups, with 70% of employed adults saying that work is a significant source of stress. That number is up significantly from 2019, as people also show concern about meeting their basic needs and the government response to the pandemic.
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Find Ways to Help All
Organizations have spent significant time trying to figure out how to take care of parents through this unusual year. While appreciated, it’s also good to admit where we’ve fallen short.
Companies need everyone working together to forge through an uncertain future. Workers need to feel like the place they work for, and especially the leadership that they report to, have their back. Making the workplace feel like a collection of people who are either haves or have-nots when it comes to work flexibility will inevitably sow division.
Most people are empathetic to the plight of parents and are often willing to chip in, especially in the short term. But the growing backlash is the result of consistent action focused primarily on the needs of parents and less sensitive to the needs of other employees.
If everyone is taken care of and appreciated, even variances in work expectations would face minimal pushback. Instead, a single person would find the freedom to safely travel for the first time in a year or an older worker could feel empowered to say no to extra work to spend time taking care of a grandchild.
For organizations, it may mean taking a hard look at some short- and long-term solutions like staffing levels and compensation. It may also mean thinking carefully about outsourcing or reprioritizing change management initiatives.
It might not be easy. But figuring out a better workplace for all usually isn’t.