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Why—and How—Employers Should Beef Up Support for Working Moms

woman at a laptop, sitting next to her baby sleeping

Working mothers historically have struggled with finding their place in the workforce while also managing their family lives.

But in many ways, the past couple of years have been more difficult than ever. The spread of COVID-19, followed by the end of federal pandemic relief funding for child care (which led some child care providers to close), resulted in an exodus of mothers leaving the workforce. Meanwhile, significant numbers of working mothers report feeling burned out at work as they try to balance their personal and professional lives.

“It’s an age-old story,” said Cheri Wheeler, vice president and senior consultant at Kelly Benefits Strategies, a benefits consultant firm based in Sparks, Md. “There have been so many working mothers struggling.”

That’s why, she said, employers need to recognize the challenges working mothers face and provide resources to help, especially during a time when attracting and retaining talent is proving difficult. Helping mothers—and all parents—in the workforce “helps the employer in terms of reduced turnover, increased productivity, and overall culture,” she said.

Ahead of Mother’s Day, SHRM Online talked to Wheeler about working moms’ experiences, the benefits they are looking for, and how employers can best support them.

SHRM Online: What’s the state of mothers now in the workplace? What challenges are they facing?

Wheeler: So many highly skilled women have left the workforce over the past few years. As some women and mothers are coming back into the workforce with the economy being a little better, employers are realizing that in order to get women through the workforce, they need to change how they’re approaching their benefits for working moms and working parents as a whole.

The biggest thing [working moms] are facing is work/life balance. That’s always been a thing. But with the remote world, the digital world, all of the resources, emails, and access to nearly everything you need for work at your home, the ability to have work/life balance is even harder.

I have been a working mom forever; my kids are in their 20s now. And yes, I had email when they were growing up, but I wasn’t accessing it 24/7 on my phone like I do now. So, I couldn’t completely work remotely, which is a blessing and a curse. Because I did have to leave to take my kids to a doctor’s appointment or something like that, and I couldn’t go back online later that night after they went to bed. That’s good and bad. Now, I feel like a lot of working parents are having a hard time separating that and knowing where to stop and to say, “I'm putting my phone away.”

SHRM Online: How are employers approaching benefits for working moms?

Wheeler: First and foremost is family and parental leave. The United States is so far behind the rest of the world with family leave; every other country has some sort of national mandated family leave policy. I have worked with some clients that have international populations, and people in those countries get six months when having a child, and the U.S. has no standardized family leave policy. Many moms don’t have any disability or a leave benefit after childbirth, so they’re going back to work in a couple of weeks. And it’s tragic not to have that time. So, companies can definitely look at their parental leave policies. Women value that more than things like vision insurance or student loan reimbursement or any of that stuff. [Parental and family leave] is one of the most desired benefits that females want.

The other thing is child care. It’s so expensive, and having resources available for your employees to help navigate the whole child care maze is really important and helpful. And not only navigating child care, but navigating elder care, because so many women in particular are also caring for their aging parents at the same time.

Other things like child care stipends, dependent care flexible spending accounts, backup child care, and onsite child care services, if that’s an option, are benefits employers should look at.

SHRM Online: You mentioned the issues with work/life balance. How important is flexibility and remote work options?

Wheeler: It’s a must. Flexibility, the ability to work from home, hybrid work—as a whole, the workplace is really more in the mindset of: “Get your work done. And as long as you can get your work done, it’s fine. We don’t care how, where, and when you do it.” Maybe you have to take your kid to the doctor in the middle of the day, and maybe you have to log back in to work later that night, but it’s fine, and it works.

But employers should help ensure their employees have work/life balance, too, and encourage them to not work at all hours and be able to give themselves time away. [Employees] should be able to have time with their family.

SHRM Online: On the employer side, why should they be making sure to prioritize working mother support? What do they get out of it?

Wheeler: We need women in the workplace. Women are highly productive and highly educated. Women are going to graduate school and medical and law schools even more than men. But women also have to work through that family balance.

As an employer, offering benefits that are family-centric are helping them reduce employee turnover, increasing their productivity, and giving [employees] the tools and the resources they need. Flexibility helps with your company’s overall reputation as just being a family-centric company. It helps with your diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, and it helps with your ability to recruit and retain top talent.

SHRM Online: How can employers evaluate how they are supporting their female employees, and mothers in particular?

Wheeler: Talk to your female employees, ask them what they need, do some surveys.

The other thing is to constantly communicate and make sure they know what resources you offer. There are so many companies that have all these great benefit plans, but employees don’t know about them. Even a traditional benefit like an EAP [employee assistance program] has great resources to help with [finding] child care.

Communicating about the benefits and support you offer is so important. You can’t just throw them out there and not tell or remind employees about them. That’s useless.

The last thing is to constantly evaluate and re-evaluate offerings. Work with your consultant, your advisor, to make sure you know about the newest and most-desired benefits. Constant support is key.


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