Parents aren't OK right now. Here's how companies can support them.

Empathetic leadership that supports parents will help keep this vulnerable population on the job.

Jaclyn Chen

Benepass CEO and co-founder Jaclyn Chen has suggestions for employers of parents.

Photo: Benepass

Jaclyn Chen is the co-founder and CEO of Benepass, a next-generation mobile and web-based benefits administrator.

You don’t have to be a working parent to know a crisis is afoot. The pandemic has ushered in unprecedented challenges for working parents and compounded issues like high costs of child care and limited paid family leave that have been neglected for years. The beginning of 2022 brought this crisis to a fever pitch with additional school closures, child care disruptions and frequent quarantines.

For many, the situation feels impossible and comes at a time when companies are seeking to turn the page to a more “normal” post-pandemic chapter. Mothers of school-aged children in particular have been hit the hardest, with approximately 1.4 million gone from the workforce since 2020.

Companies alone can’t solve this problem, but empathetic leadership that supports parents during this critical phase will help to keep this vulnerable population on the job, and sane, as well as provide a framework for how longer-term solutions at the government and societal levels can take root.

Here are ways companies can support working parents that will have the biggest impact.

Make flexibility a core business tenet

Flexibility is one of the best ways companies can support working parents, but companies need to be explicit on what the term means for their workplace so that “flexibility” doesn’t turn into “always on.” Providing employees greater control on where (remote, hybrid or in-office) and when to work particularly helps parents navigate the constant barrage of unexpected caretaking surprises; it also benefits all other employees who crave more choices around how they get work done.

Instituting a process for managing flexible schedules across your workforce creates a more inclusive environment.

Provide benefits that parents can actually use

By moving toward a benefits program with greater flexibility, you’ll enable working parents to get the most out of company support. What works for one working parent might not for another: Perhaps they could benefit most from a laundry service, grocery delivery, virtual fitness classes or funds for after-school care.

Providing a lifestyle and/or caretaking stipend to be used at the employee’s discretion across a broad swath of supportive services empowers employees to select the benefit(s) most useful to them to help weather this challenging time. What’s more, the flexibility of a lifestyle stipend will allow them to adjust in real time.

Support the physical and mental health of your employees

Most workers are burnt out. Working parents are burnt to a crisp. And while many companies have good intentions when it comes to supporting worker well-being, few actually make this a priority. A study from Harvard Business Review found that 87% of companies surveyed agreed it was “very or extremely” critical for managers to support employee well-being, but only a quarter follow through on addressing it.

The de facto gym membership perk simply isn’t cutting it anymore. In order to truly support the well-being of your employees, and particularly working parents, you’ll need to design a holistic well-being program that takes into account both physical and mental health.

A first step is offering coaching, mental health or fitness resources to your employees.

Beyond tangible benefits, your work culture significantly impacts the health and well-being of your workforce as well. Working parents may feel stigmatized or punished for not being able to be “always on” or having to block out certain times in their day in a culture that promotes around-the-clock availability. By creating a culture of inclusivity for workers to be their authentic selves, you will foster a more supportive environment for working parents and others. Open up channels of communication with managers and working parents to understand what tangible ways working parents would feel accepted and even celebrated.

Expand the scope of paid family leave

Bringing a baby into the world is a major life transition that significantly impacts one’s relationship with work. While state and federal governments continue to deliberate their role in paid family leave — the U.S. is one of only seven countries without national paid maternity leave — companies can pave the way for effectively supporting parents during this critical time.

The first step is ensuring your company has a paid family leave policy in place. Many companies extend the leave to both moms and dads. Netflix, long considered the gold standard of paid leave, offers new parents as much paid family leave as they need. And many companies are expanding leave to cover fertility treatments, surrogacy and pregnancy loss.

Not every company will be in a position to offer extended leave, but taking a hard look at what your program currently includes and how you can expand your paid leave and family planning offering is a good first step.

Enacting change

Ultimately, flexibility is the single best way employers can support parents — flexibility on where and when to work, and flexibility on use of benefits. It’s a mindset change for companies and leaders.

For decades, the template for how employees work was driven by companies, because employees needed to be at the office to be productive. For many jobs, that’s still true. For some jobs, particularly in the knowledge economy, technology makes it possible for us to collaborate without being physically together. So companies are fully capable of making that mindset switch to the template of work being a co-production between companies and their employees. Of course, leaders still set the corporate objectives and goals, and each employee plays their role in that mission. But embracing flexibility in how employees meet their objectives and goals is key to fostering a work-life balance for working parents.

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