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10 ways employers can support working parents

So you often find yourself hiding in the bathroom while on the phone? Are small, uninvited guests constantly crashing your Zoom calls?

For many working parents, whether they’re working remotely or outside of the home, the pandemic has made juggling job and family duties even tougher.

“We jokingly say that we’re playing hot potato,” Ashley Zahorchak said of caring for her 7-month-old baby while she and her husband work from home. Zahorchak serves as the director of youth services and STEM education at YWCA Greater Pittsburgh. “Whoever is not on a call or on a meeting, we’re juggling parenting duties like that.”

It’s been over four months since the COVID-19 shutdown disrupted the work-life balance, and day care centers in the state are now allowed to reopen. Yet some parents are still facing many unprecedented challenges, said Heather Hopson, creator of Single Mom Defined, an art project and blog that celebrates Black motherhood. This is especially true for mothers, as a deep body of research shows that women spend more time caring for children and doing household chores than men. “I think sometimes we’re forgetting we’re in the midst of the pandemic, and people want moms to operate like it’s business as usual, but it’s not,” she said.

PublicSource asked several family advocates and a mental health expert how employers can support working parents during the pandemic.

From hosting a virtual workout class to advocating for paid family leave, here are 10 of their ideas.

1 Promote open communication and frequent check-ins.

“(Employers) need to have open, honest and direct communication,” said Charma Dudley, a licensed psychologist and board president for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Keystone Pennsylvania. Dudley stressed the importance of managers regularly checking in with their employees - and themselves - to see how they’re faring emotionally.

“It has to be, ‘How are you doing during this time?’” she said. “This is a new experience, a new phenomenon, so I think we should talk about it.”

Cheryl Smith, early learning, child development and education programs director at YWCA Greater Pittsburgh, said she prioritizes one-on-one check-ins with her employees. “This gives them an outlet to talk about how they’re feeling and what they’re doing,” she said.

2 Allow for flexible schedules.

Parents are juggling an even greater number of roles than before, Dudley said, and their schedules should reflect that.

“Now they’re day care workers, they’re teachers. So their schedules need to be a bit more flexible,” she said. She suggested that employers check in with their employees about the optimal times to schedule meetings and allow for work outside of typical 9 to 5 hours.

3 Make time to socialize.

Work meetings are necessary - but setting aside time to discuss anything but work is also important, several sources said. Zahorchak said Zoom coffee breaks have allowed her team to remain close and blow off some steam.

“It’s more of a time that we can all get together as adults and just vent, or just talk about the successes that we’ve had, or talk about our gardens … whatever it is,” she said.

Healthy work relationships can increase happiness, reduce stress and promote general health - three things that are arguably more vital during a pandemic.

Dudley also highlighted the importance of prioritizing time for socializing as a team, be it a virtual happy hour or an online Zumba class. “It’s the connection. It’s the communication,” she said. “It’s not all about the work.”

4 Help employees connect to resources.

Several people emphasized the need for employers to connect employees with resources, from food access programs to mental health services. “I think really helping to bolster our (human resources) partners so that they know what’s available to support their employees, that’s a really important piece,” said Cara Ciminillo, executive director of the early learning nonprofit Trying Together.

Once employers are equipped with the information, they can guide employees by saying, “Here’s how you connect with XYZ agency,” Zahorchak said. “You’re not going to have a healthy workforce coming to you if they’re not able to take care of themselves.”

“This is a new experience, a new phenomenon. …”

Specifically, if an employee is struggling with anxiety or depression, Dudley said employers should refer them to an employee assistance program, a program some employers have that provides employees with counseling and services, or other mental health resources.

“This is a very vulnerable time. This is a time when you’re going to see an increase in anxiety, an increase in depression … this is really triggering a lot of different things for people,” she said.

5 Encourage time off.

Hopson, who runs the Single Mom Defined Facebook group, said there’s one thing moms want most: a break. “A lot of what moms are saying that they need is just paid time off. Just like a day where they can rest and recharge,” said Hopson, who also works as a communications consultant for the Women and Girls Foundation.

Studies show that taking regular breaks increases productivity and improves focus, making them a win-win for employees and employers.

Dudley agreed, and said employers should encourage their employees to still take vacation days if they have them. “You may not be able to go where you want to go, but if that means taking a couple of days off so that you’re away from work, that should happen,” she said.

Stepping away from work shouldn’t only be for vacation days. Both Hopson and Dudley spoke to the importance of taking breaks during the workday, even if just for 15 minutes. “We’re just really trying to get moms to go outside and take breaks, take nature walks,” Hopson said.

6 Provide technology.

With schools and workplaces moving online, not all households have access to adequate internet service or enough devices for the whole family. Employers can help make sure their employees have the technology they need, said Barbara Johnson, senior director of the Center for Race and Gender Equity at YWCA Greater Pittsburgh. That could mean a stronger Wi-Fi signal or an extra iPad for their child to do their homework.

“Even if employers aren’t able to provide all of the technology that is needed, I think they need to look at other ways to get the work done,” Smith of the YWCA added, so that employees with limited digital access can still be productive.

7 Incorporate mindfulness.

Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness at work can have benefits, including decreased stress and improved work engagement. This can include meditating, deep breathing, yoga or intentional technology breaks. According to Dudley, it’s a good time to incorporate mindfulness and meditation into the workplace.

“Some companies are actually ending some of their meetings with encouraging deep breathing, encouraging them to practice mindfulness,” she said. “Just do anything that can engage (employees).”

8 Implement a generous paid family leave policy.

From taking care of a sick family member to staying home with the kids while schools are closed, Ciminillo of Trying Together said the pandemic has reinforced the importance of paid family leave. “If mom falls ill because of COVID, but dad is still supposed to come to work, how is dad going to take care of mom?” she said. “I think COVID has really magnified the essential needs of families, and good paid family leave policies are critical to the family infrastructure.”

Heather Arnet, CEO of the Women and Girls Foundation and co-chair of the Family Care Campaign, agrees. “The recent COVID-19 crisis has made it painstakingly clear how the lack of paid leave can devastate not just one family, but entire workforces, businesses and regional economies,” she said. “Sometimes, even just communicating to workers that paid leave is available can be enough to relieve anxiety of working parents.”

In May, the National Partnership for Women and Families and the National Employment Law project released a report on employer best practices during the pandemic, including recommendations for paid leave and other emergency benefits.

9 Champion policies that support families.

In addition to implementing their own family-friendly policies, Ciminillo said organizations can encourage their corporate partners to adopt similar policies and advocate for legislation that puts families first, like paid leave or universal child care.

“I think one of the things that has been missing from the equation is the role of the employer voice, really helping to advocate at the local, state and national level, for families,” Ciminillo said. “Employers have an opportunity to lead in that space, and to help bring along their other corporate colleagues.”

The Family Care Act is proposed legislation with bipartisan support that would establish a statewide paid family medical leave insurance fund.

10 Remember: We’re all human.

Employers should cut employees some slack, Dudley said, from reprioritizing tasks to openly welcoming guest appearances from babies and pets on video calls.

Hopson echoed the sentiment. “We really have to practice patience and extend grace, because this is affecting all moms,” Hopson said. “It’s just a lot for people to manage.”