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How Companies Can Support Single Parents

A woman and a child sitting at a desk using a computer.

Editor's Note: SHRM has partnered with Harvard Business Review to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies.

When it comes to what to do about workplace burnout, much of the guidance in the popular press can be boiled down to superficial advice: go to a spa, take a nap, treat yourself. Burnout is often portrayed as an individual problem and self-care to reduce stress is the only antidote to manage it. Yet workplace burnout is an organizational problem that requires systemic solutions, especially for one group in particular: single parents.

The United States has the one of the highest rates of children living in single-parent households in the world, with nearly one in four children—about 22 million—living with a solo parent, whether that parent is divorced, separated or widowed; never married; or has an absent spouse. Forty-two percent of solo parents are white and 28% are Black. About 80% of children live with solo mothers, and most of these mothers work: 81% of single mothers were working before the pandemic in January 2020, though their labor force participation dropped more steeply than other parental groups during the pandemic and has been the slowest to recover.

"Companies need to acknowledge that single parents exist," said Tanzina Vega, a solo parent, journalist and host of The Takeaway public radio show on WNYC. "A lot of organizations still assume that all parents are in couples, so there's an assumption that your partner will be there at home if you can't be. Companies have to acknowledge there are unique issues that single parents will run into."

When organizations presume all employees have a support system in place, they make demands on time that single parents especially can't meet. Single parents end up pulled in all directions—juggling the responsibilities at home and with their children while attending to work commitments 24/7. All of this takes a toll on emotional and physical well-being. And when it comes to burnout—feeling depleted, cynical and ineffective—research shows that organizations and work cultures, not individuals, are the root of the problem. Systemic change is the only real solution.

To address this burnout, here are a few things companies need to keep in mind:

Make an effort to hire and promote solo parents.

During the pandemic, many women and single mothers were forced out of the workforce or had to cut back hours. Companies must make an effort to rehire these people, as well as find a way to measure their work and chance for promotion without penalizing them for the care they had to provide during the pandemic. For instance, most workplace norms are based on an outmoded "ideal worker" standard of someone who is always available. Workers with caregiving responsibilities (particularly single parents) are seen as lesser workers in need of "accommodation." Companies instead should design work systems and processes from the start that recognize all workers have care responsibilities and lives outside of work. Use structured interviews with questions tied to job requirements to disrupt confirmation bias. If organizations use artificial intelligence to sort through resumes based on an always-available "ideal worker," those algorithms must be reprogrammed to account for childcare disruptions, particularly for single parents.

Make company culture inclusive.

Language matters. Don't default to advertising events as for "couples" or urge people to "bring spouses." "Plus ones welcome" will do. What's more, managers mustn't assume single parents don't want stretch assignments or travel (once pandemic restrictions ease) just because they're solo parents. Ask them directly. And consider providing compensation for single parents if they're expected to attend work events outside business hours, since that will require additional work organizing care on their part.

Asking about the opportunities single parents want in their role or career could lead to more honest conversations, said Marika Lindholm, founder of ESME, an online community for solo mothers, both about how organizations can better support single parents and how they can better acknowledge single parents' contributions and skills. Make it a management practice to check in on single parents and make it OK for single parents to ask for help. "It's really about sensitivity to the juggling act, and not pretending that it doesn't exist," she said. "This is an opportunity for single parents to share their challenges, and for their managers to talk openly about solutions that would help them."

Structure and organize work creatively and flexibly.

Organizations must absolutely lean into supporting employee well-being, stress reduction and especially mental health, as the pandemic has taken a toll on everyone. But one of the most important things to address burnout? "Stop normalizing overworking," said Dr. Stephanie Lee, senior director at the Child Mind Institute.

Prior to Covid-19, many companies were driven by always-on, always-available norms and rewarded long hours of face time in the office—norms that particularly disadvantaged single parents. But the pandemic has shattered those norms. Now, as companies prepare for a post-pandemic world, they can lead the way in redesigning work around mission and purpose—rather than where and when it's done—and give workers more control and autonomy in the time, manner and place of work. That can apply not only to white collar workers managing remote, flexible or hybrid schedules, but also hourly and service workers by moving away from disruptive just-in-time and unpredictable algorithmic scheduling. Both would go a long way in easing single parent work-life strain and burnout.

Cali Yost, founder of the Flex+Strategy Group and the daughter of a single mother, said prior to the pandemic, many organizations resisted flexible work or provided it on an inconsistent ad hoc basis with little to no training about how to make it work. But the pandemic has forced everyone to be creative. "Now is the time for organizations to be sharing best practices and asking, 'How do we draw upon some of the really creative lessons we had to learn during the pandemic?" she said. "Organizations need to figure out how they're going to execute and plan with each other in a creative, dynamic, flexible way. If that happens, then it's really going to help, not just single parents, but everybody."

Workplace experts, including Jennifer Moss, author of the forthcoming book The Burnout Epidemic, say the workplace solutions to burnout for any worker lie in management focusing on worker motivation, challenge and the opportunity for meaningful work. Beyond that, companies must also emphasize good "work hygiene," addressing whether salaries, benefits, company policies and work conditions are fair and working relationships healthy.

Create opportunities to set boundaries, take breaks and rest.

Instead of baking bread or developing a hobby during the pandemic, many people, including single parents, simply worked more, putting them on a collision course for burnout. Organizations can reinforce paid time off policies, ensuring employees have time away from work, or support public efforts for universal paid family and medical leave, paid sick leave and paid vacation leave. Think through policies now about how to manage all the unused paid vacation time employees may have accumulated during the pandemic and make sure they take breaks without penalty in 2021. And encourage managers to model taking time off, too.

Help with child care.

The pandemic has shown clearly what working parents, especially single parents, have known for years: Child care is not optional. Bipartisan support is growing for public investment in the kind of high-quality universal childcare system for those who need it that is common in other advanced economies. The Biden administration has proposed major investment in paid family leave and recognizing child care as essential infrastructure. But business has an important role to play in developing their own supportive workplace policies and practices.

Business has a long way to go. In a nationally representative September 2020 survey by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), 87% of employees said company help reimbursing childcare or educational services would be most helpful. Yet only 8% of organizations provide it. Same with on-site childcare and partnerships with off-site child care providers. "The findings suggest that many of the options that most employees would find helpful are the least commonly provided by organizations," said SHRM spokesperson Julie Hirschhorn. Organizations must make an effort to understand the caregiving needs of their workforce and commit to doing more.

Support public policies for working parents.

Companies can also support efforts to redesign public policies so they recognize the unique constraints on single parents, something Democratic Rep. Katie Porter of California, herself a single parent, has made her mission in Congress, pushing against what she calls "single parent penalties" in the tax code and other policies. For instance, one study of single mothers in the pandemic in Australia found that single mothers actually experienced less stress and anxiety than partnered mothers "perhaps because of the support the government provided in keeping child care and schools open and offering direct aid," said Liana Sayer, a sociologist who studies gender time use patterns at the University of Maryland. "That's not something businesses can do, but it is something they might consider supporting."

In the United States, the Family Medical Leave Act provides workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave for caregiving each year, regardless of parental status. But elsewhere, countries are seeing the challenges single parents face and are offering benefits accordingly. In Norway, partnered parents each have 10 to 15 paid days off each year to care for sick children under 12; single parents have 20 to 30. Finland's new paid family leave policy gives 164 days to each parent, about seven months, and all 328 days to single parents. During the pandemic, Germany gave partnered parents 10 additional days of paid leave to care for their children, and single parents 20 days. Belgium, South Korea and other countries actually pay single parents higher benefit levels than partnered parents, recognizing that single parents often bear sole responsibility for raising their children. Looking at the benefits available to single parents all over the world can help organizations speak up about and support policies that will create change.

As radio host and single parent Tanzina Vega put it, "The more organizations show up for employees, I guarantee the more employees will show up for organizations." And that goes double for single parents.

Brigid Schulte is a journalist, director of the Better Life Lab at New America, and author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. Stavroula Pabst, previously a Graduate Communications intern at New America's Better Life Lab, is a PhD student in Communications and Mass Media Studies at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens in Athens, Greece.

This article is reprinted from Harvard Business Review with permission. ©2021. All rights reserved.


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