With millions of UK children likely to be learning remotely for weeks longer, the pressures on working parents are constantly mounting. This is especially true when government policy changes so swiftly in relation to Covid infection and hospitalisation rates.
Many parents now effectively have two full-time roles – their usual job that pays the bills, and the role of teacher to their children. A quick glance at any online parenting forum reveals the complex challenges facing parents who may be unsure of their rights and reluctant to push their employer for more concessions. Recent research by MHR, for instance, shows a third (33 per cent) of working parents have lied to their boss about how well they cope with balancing homeschooling and working during lockdown.
Despite changes in government guidelines, meaning employers have the option to furlough employees who need to look after their children, recent research from the TUC shows seven in 10 requests by working mums for furlough have been denied.
The longer parents struggle with these challenges, the less productive they are likely to be. This is a time when managers need to connect with each member of their team on a one-to-one basis to truly understand their individual needs and find a mutually agreeable solution.
For parents who are coping fairly well but still need assistance, it may simply be a question of minimising their involvement in certain procedures and meetings. Increased demand for access to flexible working arrangements will almost certainly be a priority for many parents. However, they will only be sufficiently confident to make these requests when they have a good relationship with their line manager.
Since this is such an unusual situation, employers should think seriously about moving away from the traditional 9-to-5 routine, allowing parents the opportunity to work their required hours at a time convenient to them. This may mean splitting the working day into two, with a period of homeschooling in the middle of the day in line with government requirements for between three and five hours of education.
A more relaxed and flexible approach will make employees feel supported and trusted at the toughest of times. After establishing what their employees require, managers need to make use of informal regular check-ins so they can discuss how individuals are coping and what reasonable adjustments can be made so they can fulfil their role. Employees with large families may, for example, request a short-term reduction in working hours or additional support from elsewhere within the business, such as job sharing or using a more convenient work location used by another department.
All employers need to consider that no two situations are the same and different levels of support or adjustments will be required. Employees with more than one child, young children or exam students will require more focused care than perhaps those with older children who may need less frequent support.
HR managers should also consider that it is not only parents that are impacted by the requirement to educate children at home. Employees living in extended family households or shared accommodation may be experiencing similar struggles to find the space to work effectively within core hours.
If parents are under heavy pressure, they may well request annual leave and, potentially, unpaid leave to help resolve the demands on their time and emotional energy. Many will make these requests because they used their parental leave allowance during the previous two lockdowns. Since the purpose of annual leave is to provide relaxation and recuperation throughout the year, rather than cashing it all to meet childcare needs, it may be worthwhile considering offering unpaid leave for the time being. After all, this is such an unusual predicament for everyone, which has gone on far longer than many of us expected.
There are further options within employment regulations that parents may wish to discuss with their employer. Unfortunately, these options will also result in reduced pay. From day one of employment, all employees are entitled to time off work without pay to help someone who depends on them (a ‘dependant’) in an unexpected event or emergency. This would apply in the current situation although the drawback with this option is that time off is primarily to arrange for that care, rather than for employees to provide the care themselves.
As a last resort for those in a financially permitting position, all parents are also entitled to unpaid parental leave, which is 18 weeks for each child and adopted child up to their eighteenth birthday. Parents must take this leave as whole weeks rather than individual days, unless their employer agrees otherwise or if their child is disabled. Unpaid parental leave is limited to four weeks for each child per year, but employers can be flexible with this and may allow parents to take a larger proportion. There is a necessity here for employers to ensure accurate records are kept so that the allowance is not exceeded over time.
The challenges facing employers and HR departments over homeschooling by their employees are substantial. Employers need to balance the needs of the business with the unique requirements of each parent they employ. Getting the balance wrong could jeopardise productivity and cause longer-term damage to the business and its brand reputation. If employers have the means to check-in with their employees regularly and make those conversations meaningful, then they are more likely to calibrate that balance correctly, to the benefit of everyone.
Dawn Brown is an HR expert at MHR