Since COVID-19 started, many working families have had to grapple with home schooling. For the lucky ones, it may have lasted a few weeks, for others, weeks became months of in-and-out home schooling, and, for the truly unlucky, it has lasted for much of the past 18 months.
In my household, there have been many moments of absolute fear whenever one of our sweet children comes in midway through a work call. You have a split second to assess the situation and decide what to do – What kind of a mood are they in? Are they wearing clothes? When was the last time they went to the bathroom? Do you leave the meeting and deal with them quickly and hope they stay away? Do you keep going hoping they will sit angelically and quietly observe (a rare occurrence)? Do you change backgrounds, mute or shut the camera off? And all this while trying to remember what someone said 15 seconds ago on the other end of the video call. Get it right and you look like you are nailing it. Get it wrong and it can be humiliating.
Sensibly, some organisations take the view that working parents struggling with burn out, guilt and frustration are not all that productive and are offering a flexible suite of benefits to support them through the pandemic.
Benefits to support working families are not a new concept. But in the past, they have centred on parental leave, usually focussed on the “primary carer” (typically female) and not necessarily how the family works together. Although many organisations have finessed their parental leave policies, there still exists a notion of a primary carer (mostly thanks to the legislative framework). This can work well if both partners have a similar level of employment, responsibility and remuneration, not so well when they don’t.
While offering parental leave to parents or carers is great, a more rounded approach is needed considering that the uptake of parental leave by male carers is still very low, with women doing most of the heavy lifting (ABS figures put it at 95%).
But the pandemic is changing how many organisations approach working family benefits. We are seeing an increase in family-focused benefits that place less emphasis on the primary carer model and look at the family unit.
These family-integrated benefits aim to:
- Help retain employees in the workforce (particularly retention of under-represented groups in management positions);
- Design benefits that can be utilised by a broader range of employees; and
- Relaxing eligibility criteria and checks to make benefits easier to access, thereby encouraging all carers to utilise benefits, regardless of gender or role in the family.
These progressive employers are looking at the long game, particularly how to encourage more men to take up family benefits. Their aim is not just about keeping their employees productive, but helping their employees stay employed, and, in the process, taking the strain off families. By doing this, employers are hoping for a more positive work-home balance, leading to higher levels of work satisfaction that research shows improves productivity.
Carefully and thoughtfully designed benefits will have a positive impact on a family and result in more equitable participation of parents in the workforce (regardless of gender), particularly at senior levels. With the gender pay gap still sitting at 13.4%, offering benefits that both parents can and will take up is important so that we can start to shift gender beliefs and attitudes and focus on what works for the family.
Some benefits do have an associated cost. However, the return on investment can be huge and be a point of difference when choosing to join or stay with an employer, critical in a tight job market.
There is also much that can be done at low or no cost around encouraging boundary setting, opening up communication and assessing policies and procedures to determine how effectively they support families.
I would encourage all organisations to reflect on their current practices. If they do develop a more holistic approach to workplace flexibility and family benefits because of COVID, then this insidious virus could be delivering a small silver lining in what has been a very dark cloud.
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