Corporate culture cannot return to what it was pre-2020 and if we are going to keep parents in the workplace, we need to start rethinking how they are treated.
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Woman working at home next to daughter
Credit: Oliver Rossi | Oliver Rossi

Between March and April 2020, nearly 3.5 million mothers living with school-age children left active work. Some took paid or unpaid leave, others were laid off, and even more were forced to make the decision to resign while struggling with child care, homeschooling, and caring for themselves or family members sick with COVID-19, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The related impact on fathers was also not great, but women were three times more likely than men to have to leave the workforce due to pandemic-related child care demands.

As the pandemic continues and variants surge across the country, families still struggle to maintain balance between earning income outside of the home and caring for kids who are stuck at home when schools close or exposures occur. These parents want to work, and 40 percent of working parents are open to finding a new employer in the next year according to a survey of 3,100+ working mothers in September 2021. But change needs to come from employers first.

"The workplace in the U.S. isn't working for families," say Miriam Williams and Tara Elwell Henning, founders of Superkin, an organization that consults with companies on policy, benefits, programming, and culture. "It took a pandemic to expose the cracks in the system and now and it's time employers recognize that the employee value proposition has dramatically changed. People have shifted how, where, and with whom they work. If leadership is holding on to the past, hoping that we'll eventually go back to a workplace pre-2020, they'll quickly realize their ability to recruit and retain the top talent will disappear."

If employers want to hold onto their employees, conditions for working parents have to change. Otherwise, we are going to continue to witness a mass exodus of parents from the workplace. Here's what parents really need from employers.

Paid Family Leave

The United States is the only wealthy country that doesn't offer a national program for paid parental leave. The lack of financial support for new parents especially affects women, but there is a growing amount of evidence to show how paid, mandatory paternity leave is vital to promote workplace equity, too. Studies show that paid family leave improves employee retention, worker productivity, and even improves business competitiveness in the global economy.

Following the birth of his first daughter, Troy Phan took eight weeks of optional paternity leave provided by his company to stay home with his wife and baby. "It was an extremely tough time," he says, referring to the time he spent home with his newborn. "I've never been that sleep-deprived. We had everything from mastitis, RSV, and postpartum issues the first few months. It took about a year for us to really catch up on feeling normal." Having paid time off to adjust as a new parent made all the difference.

And it's not only offering the leave that matters, it's important for employers to encourage employees to take it and support them upon their return.

"Allowing either parent to take time off when a child is born levels the playing field," says Lisa Jerles, one of the co-founders of All Before Dinner, a networking group supporting parents in the workplace. "It shows that both parents are equally important in the raising of children."

Transparency on Existing Family Leave Policies

Before a potential employee accepts a job, they should have access to the full benefits package information, including family leave policies. Many candidates who are not yet thinking about having children or having to care for another family member may not think to ask about paid leave, and they shouldn't have to. Transparency on family leave policies sets an employee up for success from the second they join a team and helps maintain employee retention.

As policies around paid leave have been making national headlines, several companies are sharing their own policies to encourage other companies to do the same. The founders of theSkimm, a news media organization, started the #ShowUsYourLeave campaign on social media, highlighting their own company policy around paid leave (18 weeks with a phased return to work schedule availability) and asking others to share their policies too. "Because it matters—for women, families, and the workforce as a whole," they wrote on their Instagram post about the campaign.

"It's important to recognize that this is not a women's issue, it's an issue that affects everyone," say Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg, co-founders and co-CEOs of theSkimm. "We have seen businesses taking into account primary and secondary caregivers, additional child care needs, and even leave for bereavement and pregnancy loss. The more companies continue to share their paid family leave policies, the more comfortable parents will feel to return to work."

Acknowledge Raising Children is Work Too

According to a recent study from Harvard Business School, a top reason employees cite leaving an organization is due to caregiving responsibilities (including caring for a newborn or adopted child, caring for a sick child, or managing a child's needs). Employers drastically underestimate this spectrum of care responsibility on their employees outside of the workplace.

"Kids aren't going to raise themselves," says All Before Dinner's Jerles. She thinks the first step of creating a supportive environment for parents in the workplace is reframing parental leave as another important—and vital—type of work. If employers understand the importance of raising children, there will be positive, practical solutions in the workplace for parents.

When new parents return, instead of being thrown into the deep end, they need verbal acknowledgment from employers that having a child has changed them as an employee. "It all goes back to communication," says Jerles. She adds that employers should initiate upfront conversations with parents on their return to figure out what they need to be happy at work following the birth or adoption of a child. "A happy employee is more productive and efficient for their employer," says Jerles.

Accommodate Flexible Scheduling

Jerles has found most parents are happiest at work when they are allowed remote working options and flexible scheduling, which enables them to be available to chauffeur their children to school, work from home when the daycare is closed, or breastfeed and pump for their baby. "Flexibility and listening to the employee's needs are critical to retaining top talent," says Jerles.

Tracy* had been working at a contract manufacturing company outside of Raleigh, North Carolina before she went on maternity leave with her first baby boy in May 2021. Upon her return to work 10 weeks later, she felt supported by her employer, but still struggled with balancing life as a new mother in a full-time career. "I left for my first full day at the office in tears," says Tracy. "How was I going to leave my tiny baby at home without his momma? I was going to miss everything." Within weeks, her breastmilk supply had diminished, and she found herself unable to focus on her work, constantly wondering if her son was okay.

Tracy says she would have loved to work flexibly from home when she first returned to work, but because her employer couldn't accommodate her needs, she had to find alternative employment.

"Parents struggle to manage workday and school schedules," say Superkin's Williams and Elwell Henning. "It's next to impossible to make it work and the stress of it is a huge contributor to burnout. Set up guidelines for flexible work hours and manage without stigma."

They add: "Despite rolling into our third year of the pandemic, it's still easily forgotten how many parents continue to juggle unpredictable child care situations and need flexibility when the inevitable school and daycare closure arise due to COVID."

Offer Resources of Support

In a recent survey by BetterUp Labs, 25 percent of the parents polled said they do not get enough emotional or instrumental support needed to return to work after parental leave, 20 percent felt having a child impacted their job security, 48 percent felt they are spread too thin between work and parenting responsibilities, and 25 percent admitted to being uncomfortable sharing child care struggles with their boss.

Stacey Maresco, an ed-tech strategy consultant and mother of two young children, has carried out market research to find out what parents—herself included—want on their return to work following a leave. "I felt alone in navigating how to juggle my mental health, job, kids, and the pandemic, while also trying to relearn how to do my job again and get reintegrated into the fabric of my team and company," Maresco says. "Employers can take simple steps to ensure their leaders are prepared to guide new parents, like me, through the transition back to work."

She emphasized three primary strategies to preempt a parent's return to work:

  1. Proactively having a prepared plan for how to re-onboard their colleague back to work.
  2. Creating a "while you were out" resource to help the employee reacclimate and learn what they have missed.
  3. Communicating to new parents that they aren't expected to be peak contributors when they first return to work.

*Last name has been withheld for privacy.