Worry and Guilt Plague Working Parents During Back-to-School Season

Employers can help with care benefits, by showing empathy and by setting an example

By Dana Wilkie Aug 29, 2017
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​There's the morning parent orientation at your child's school, which overlaps with your weekly meeting at work. There are the half days designed to ease students back into the academic year, but which leave parents either scrambling for child care or asking to work from home.

And that may be just the first week of school for working parents, who must juggle job duties with parenting responsibilities most of the year—all while wrestling with the worry that colleagues and managers will view them as less than dedicated to their jobs.

"Back-to-school season brings an array of challenges," said Alyssa Johnson, vice president of account management for Waltham, Mass.-based Care@Work, which provides employers with benefit programs to help workers care for children, seniors, pets and their homes. "New caregivers, new schedules and new after-school programs all require a period of adjustment that working parents are balancing with their responsibilities in the office." 

A 2015 survey by her organization found that 51 percent of working parents said that back-to-school interferes with work. During this time of the year, they were more frequently absent from work, less productive on the job and concerned that they would be perceived poorly because they were distracted by caregiving demands. 

In addition to the demands that accompany the start of a new school year come the pressures of the entire year's school schedule, said Ellen Galinsky, a senior research advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management who specializes in work/family issues. Many schools end classes between 3 and 4 p.m., which means working parents need child care for several hours or must head home themselves. School holidays and spring breaks don't always coincide with an employee's vacation allotment. Inclement weather and teacher development days can mean that kids don't go to school at all.      

"Work has changed in this country," Galinsky said. "People work longer hours, they are called on sometimes 24/7, 51 percent do work e-mail during nonwork hours because of technology, and jobs have become more demanding. Yet school schedules have stayed the same. This is a real mismatch that is very stressful for families.

"In addition, kids get sick. Then the house of cards that parents construct to take care of their children begins to collapse. These gaps have been filled with after-school care and drop-in care, but they cost money."

How Employers Can Help

Employers can help by offering year-round benefits such as employer-provided backup child care for emergency situations, Johnson said. Such programs, she said, are proven to decrease absenteeism and to boost productivity among working parents.

Care@Work reports that employees who have access to backup child care work six additional days per year than those who don't have it. Services can help working parents find the child care best suited to their needs or navigate the complexity and confusion of finding the right care for an aging relative, Johnson said.

"More and more companies are realizing that maintaining an engaged, productive workforce means appreciating that breadwinning and caregiving are inextricably connected," she said. "Providing care support for their teams results in greater overall performance and bottom-line results."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Coordinating Leaves of Absence]

Be Even-Handed About Flexibility

Managers may want to afford working parents flexibility during the school year. But how does a manager handle nonparents who may complain about doing more work because of these accommodations or who feel slighted that they're not afforded similar breaks just because they don't have children?

"Benefits equality is critical to building a culture supportive of work/life balance, and it's essential to remember that 'family' does not simply mean children," Johnson said.  "If you're granting flexibility to parents dealing with a back-to-school schedule, do the same for employees who need to take a parent, spouse or themselves to the doctor. Additionally, with flexibility should come accountability. Encourage employees to be as proactive as possible in creating plans to meet deadlines and commitments as they adjust to back-to-school season, so that the work doesn't fall to someone else. If benefits are extended equally among your employees, nonparents are less likely to feel burdened on those occasions when they have to pick up the slack, because they know the parents on their team will do the same for them when they need it."

Galinsky, however, said that her institute's research indicates that complaints against "parent privilege" are rare.

"On average, this is more of a perceived problem than a real problem," she said. "If workplaces are designed with the notion that everyone at one time or another needs flexibility—it may be for an elderly parent or car or house that needs immediate repair—then people are very accepting of flexibility because all can have access to it." 

Working Parent Worry and Guilt

A working parent's productivity may be stifled by more than just the scheduling challenges that come with back-to-school season. Parents can also be plagued by worries about how their children will do in school, Galinsky said, and that can distract them from job duties.

"Schools are so judgment-laden," she said. "There is continuous assessment [and parents may ask] 'How will my child fare against the norm? Will I like the teacher? Will the teacher like me and my family? What if my child needs extra support going back to school? Will I be available and able to manage it?' "

In addition, "it's not unusual for working parents to be concerned with how their co-workers and managers perceive them during back-to-school season," Johnson said.  "Common refrains are concerns that they will be viewed as less committed to their jobs, or that they will miss out on increased responsibilities within the company."

Employers can help by simply showing interest in the school year and how a worker's child is doing.

"The simple act of the manager asking about how the employees' children are doing in the transition back to school can mean a lot," Galinsky said. "It can mean that the wall between work and family is more porous than is traditional. It can mean that the manager cares about me and my family. It can mean that I don't have to sacrifice my kids for work. Small things like this—or even workshops to talk about this transition—can make a big difference." 

Andee Harris is chief engagement officer at HighGround, a Chicago-based employee engagement and performance management software provider. She notes that "personalization is especially important for working parents."

"When I'm upfront and tell my employees when I have to leave early to spend time with my kids, I know it helps people on my team feel more comfortable doing the same," Harris said. "For working parents that do work from home part time or full time, make sure to include them in video calls so they feel connected to team members, even when they're not in the office daily."

 

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