Half of working mums say childcare during Covid-19 has damaged their career, poll finds

As government announces it has dropped plans to reopen all primary schools in England by the end of term, experts urge employers to offer greater flexibility

More than half of working mums believe increased childcare responsibilities during the coronavirus crisis have negatively affected their career prospects or will harm them in future, according to a survey. 

Charity and campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed polled almost 3,700 pregnant women and mothers to understand the impact of Covid-19, and almost three months of lockdown, on their careers. More than three-quarters (78 per cent) found it challenging to manage childcare and paid work during lockdown. As a result, 57 per cent thought increased childcare responsibilities had negatively affected their career prospects, or would harm them in future. 

A further 25 per cent said their work had not been flexible enough to allow them to complete their work duties while providing childcare. And as schools and nurseries began to reopen, almost half (49 per cent) admitted feeling forced to send their children back so they could focus on work.

The survey came, however, as the government announced it had dropped plans for all primary school children in England to return to the classroom before the end of term, with the initial plan no longer considered feasible by the government. While the move was widely welcomed by teachers unions, concerns were raised about the added pressures this would create for working parents.

Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, said the volume of mothers the organisation had spoken to who felt lockdown and childcare would negatively impact on their careers was “terrifying”. She called on employers to recognise the challenges working from home with children placed on parents. 

“Women are more likely than men to lose their jobs in the impending recession, and yet, for a quarter of working mothers, their employer has refused to give them the flexibility they need,” Brearley said. “This has resulted in women being pushed into unpaid leave, sick pay or furloughed as a direct result of having children. It’s no wonder working mothers aren’t thinking positively about their future careers.”

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The survey also found 8 per cent of pregnant women were expecting to be made redundant, with 20 per cent of these believing their pregnancy was a factor. The same number (8 per cent) had been suspended from work on incorrect terms, including sick pay, no pay, enforced annual leave or being put on maternity leave early. It also found that not all pregnant women were able to adhere to social distancing measures, with 5 per cent still going to work in unsafe environments – rising to 6.4 per cent for BAME women. 

One woman, who spoke to Pregnant Then Screwed for the survey, said she felt looking after her children while working from home would affect her career further down the line as her work was highly results orientated. She explained: “Clearly, my ability to build momentum with old and new clients has been slowed by the current situation.”

She added that issues caused by working flexibly around childcare had been compounded by a company culture encouraging overtime. She said: “I’m worried that I’m not doing enough with the children or enough work, or that I’m doing too much of everything and at risk of burning out.”

Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser for the CIPD, said employers should support working parents by providing "maximum flexibility", which would help parents juggle work and childcare responsibilities. 

"As well as allowing employees to complete their work during evenings and weekends where the business allows, managers could consider job design and reallocating or redefining tasks or projects to best suit people's current capacity," Suff explained. "People's individual circumstances should be taken into account as far as possible, so have a one-to-one conversation about what support could help people be most productive."

She said employers needed to understand the potential impact this juggling and work intensity could have on people's wellbeing, and allow for some disruption to the ‘normal’ working day. She added: "The support you provide for working parents during this very challenging time will reap benefits in terms of their loyalty in the future."

The continued lockdown had not negatively affected all working mothers, however, the research found. Only 44 per cent of mothers were able to work from home before February 2020, but this number increased to 71 per cent as a result of lockdown. Additionally, more than half (58 per cent) believed home working would be possible after the crisis, with 55 per cent saying they would want or need to work fewer hours in the future to cope with childcare. 

Mandy Garner, managing editor of Workingmums, said her organisation had received a number of requests for advice from mothers told their only option was to take unpaid leave or threatened with losing their jobs as a result of childcare issues caused by the pandemic. 

"Even parents who are able to work around their toddlers' sleep times are struggling and exhausted, burning the midnight oil and getting up early," Garner said. "So empathy, offering flexible working, including reduced hours, redeployment to more flexible positions or furlough, are absolutely crucial."

She also called on the government to do more to promote and strengthen furlough for childcare reasons, and to recognise the long-term toll juggling childcare with work was taking on parents.