One of the key challenges for parents during the pandemic has been managing work and childcare.
Finding suitable and safe childcare hasn’t been easy. Balancing home-schooling and supporting their children with studying has also been a big ask for parents.
According to a report by Trade Union Congress in September 2020, 1 in 6 mums had no choice but to reduce their working hours due to nursery and school closures during the pandemic.
This then threatens to put parents and their families in a difficult financial situation.
The challenges parents face
Challenges for parents relating to work and childcare during the pandemic include:
- Parents of younger children who require more support and care including home-schooling
- Single parents who are predicted to be hit the hardest by COVID related measures and school closures
- Financial challenges for parents managing the balance between work and childcare
- Parents who are required to attend the workplace who aren’t physically able to support their children during the day.
These are just some of the challenges faced by parents due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Thankfully, HR can help in a number of ways.
Parents entitlement to tax relief for job expenses
Before you do anything, ensure that the parents and indeed all your employees are aware of the Government financial support available to them through the pandemic.
For example, remote workers could be eligible for tax relief for job expenses since they began working from home. There’s more information on this on the UK Government website here.
For parents, this could be even more useful in helping cover the cost of bills while their children are studying at home.
There’s also the Money Advice Service, which provides a wide range of invaluable advice that could help your staff manage their finances through the pandemic.
The Money Advice Service is a Government funded source of financial information and they have a whole range of information relating to finances and Coronavirus here.
For more advice, take a look at our extensive guide to helping employees manage their finances.
5 key options for helping parents balance work and childcare
Before we start, it’s important to remember each parent is in their own unique situation. Some solutions will be better for some parents than others, so you may require a combination of these options to support parents in the best way possible.
So, what options do HR have when it comes to supporting parents?
The Furlough Scheme
The latest Government guidance confirms that furlough is allowed for people who can’t attend work due to a requirement to care for dependents, or in this case their children.
For single parents of young children this could be the best or even the only option.
It is perhaps one of the simplest options, but of course it’s important to consider the effect it has on the business too.
If lots of parents take up this option, providing adequate cover for those on furlough could be a challenge.
Many HR experts have predicted this will be the default option for many businesses and parents. However, it’s not the only option and may not always be the best option.
- The employee has all the time they need to support their family and children and won’t have to worry about work until they return
- The process can be done quickly and may have been done before at your company or even with that particular employee.
- When placing an employee on furlough, adequate cover is needed which could provide a challenge
- Lots of employees face this challenge and putting too many staff on furlough could be detrimental to the business
The Holiday Trading scheme
The Holiday Trading scheme allows employees to sell and buy additional annual leave to and from their employer.
Typically, the scheme is used to help improve work-life balance and give employees more flexibility.
During the pandemic however, the scheme has often been used by employers and employees to help manage hours and workload.
There’s more on how this works in our guide to using Holiday Trading to manage costs and the workforce.
How can the Holiday Trading scheme be used to support childcare?
Here’s an example of how the scheme could work to support childcare.
In this instance, parents could purchase 7 extra days of annual leave from their employer.
They could then allocate 1 day of annual leave each week for 7 weeks, the usual length of a full school term.
Their working week is then reduced to 4 days per week, which would allow parents an extra day in the week to spend with their children while they’re not at school.
The employee would then pay for their 7 additional days of annual leave over a manageable 12-month period, meaning the cost of their time off wouldn’t be a big initial hit to their finances.
This is just one example of how the scheme could be used in this instance. The scheme could be used in different ways depending on the level of COVID restrictions or the individual’s particular situation.
- The scheme is flexible and can be used to suit specific childcare needs
- Easy for employees to apply with quick turnaround and solution
- Helps avoid difficult pay and hours restructuring between employer and employee.
- This solution may not meet significant childcare needs such as those of single parents with young children who might need extended time away.
The right to unpaid time off to deal with the situation
One short-term solution for employees could be their right to take a ‘reasonable’ amount of unpaid time off to deal with their particular situation.
Regarding this, Director of Legal Services at employment law and HR support company Ellis Whittam told HR Grapevine “parents have the right to take a ‘reasonable’ amount of unpaid time off work to take ‘necessary’ action to deal with situations affecting their dependants.”
The amount of time considered ‘reasonable’ under the current circumstances is likely to be much longer than usual.
- Provides quick, short-term solution for parents who in most cases aren’t given much time to plan for childcare when new COVID restrictions are introduced.
- The ‘reasonable’ amount of time employees are permitted to take unpaid won’t provide a longer term solution for parents
- Unpaid time off could leave parents in a difficult financial situation
- If lots of employees exercise this right, it could present a short term challenge of providing adequate cover.
This option for employees isn’t necessarily a solution but is an option and it’s important that staff know of all the options they have available to them.
Employee agreement to reduce hours
Another option could be to give parents the option to reduce their hours or for full-time parents to switch to part-time for the time being.
This could make it easier for parents to share work and childcare responsibilities in the household with their spouse, for example.
- The agreement can be tailored to the company and the employee in terms of how many hours they need for childcare to best suit everyone.
- A reduction of hours in this case means a reduction in pay and so employees may prefer to be furloughed
- Condensing full-time workload into part-time or even sharing out workload could be a challenge.
For employees who only want to reduce their working week by a few hours this could be a good option.
However, where an employee’s pay would be reduced to less than 80% of what it would normally be, the Furlough Scheme would be a better option so the parent doesn’t lose out on pay.
Flexible working can take many forms and particularly with remote working, employees are able to be more flexible with their work than ever.
In this case, flexible working could mean employees can work earlier and finish earlier, work later and take a longer lunch break or work longer days and finish earlier on a Friday, for example.
It’s important for employers to be prepared to let employees, particularly parents, to be flexible with their hours to allow them to effectively manage childcare.
The more flexible employers allow parents to be with their hours, the less likely they are to need to be furloughed or take time off.
- Employees can work their same hours and won’t lose out on pay
- Easy for remote workers in particular.
- Could affect work-life balance with same hours being worked
- Must be managed carefully to ensure mental health isn’t affected as a result
- Might not be effective for parents who are required to attend the workplace.
Each of these solutions could be used for different parents depending on their circumstances.
You could find a combination of solutions that work for some parents too.
For example, flexible working and Holiday Trading could be used to allow a parent to work less days in the week and then work flexible hours and mould their working day around their childcare commitments.
And of course, you may find that there are other solutions not mentioned here that work for you!
Whichever solution you go for, here are a few other ways you can support parents through this difficult period.
Consider their working environment
With children at home, how will it affect your employees and their working environment? Do your employees still feel comfortable working from home for example?
Think about how you could help your employees away from the sometimes hectic environment that can be created with the whole family at home all at once.
Here’s where you could support employees with flexible working. Maybe some parents would prefer to start their working day later and finish later to avoid starting work during a hectic morning?
It’s a stressful time for everyone. Not least for parents who have the difficult task of managing childcare and their work-life balance.
It can take its toll, so make sure you have as many preventative and reactionary measures in place to not only help prevent any mental health challenges arising but to answer mental health challenges that have already come up.
Regular breaks are important for everyone, even if it’s just to stand up and stretch for a minute after a while at your desk.
For parents, they may often find themselves taking breaks to look after their family.
Encourage breaks not just for this but for the parents themselves too. We all need a rest sometimes and its important your employees aren’t just taking a break for their family but to look after themselves too.
Check in with your employees and be aware of future Government changes
At the beginning of 2021, the German government announced an extension to child-sickness absence pay. This means that employees are allowed extra days paid sick leave to look after their children while at home.
Whether the UK Government will follow suit or not, it’s important to keep an eye out for any legislative changes that could affect parents.
It’s also important to keep parents aware of their rights and, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, the financial support they’re entitled to receive.
Importantly, monitor the situation of parents going forward. We’re all learning to adapt to new situations every day!
The solution you put in for a parent today may not work for them tomorrow, so be prepared to change this if needed!
As with all the challenges HR have faced since the start of the pandemic, one key positive to come out of it is that a lot of learning has taken place and should situations such as these come up in future, HR will be ready to tackle them headfirst!