By Mary Beth Ferrante
This article was originally published on Forbes.com
We’ve closed the books on 2020, but for working parents, the challenges from 2020 are far from over. COVID-19 has pushed over 2.2 Million women out of the workforce, devastated an already broken child care system, and still threatens to erase the progress women have made narrowing the gender gap. For working parents, COVID-19 only heightened the lack of support for caregiving that already existed prior to the pandemic. Organizations will not be able to effectively engage and retain working parents going forward if they don’t learn from 2020 and better support the spectrum of care.
Working parents, and especially working mothers, already felt the pressure of the maternal wall well before the pandemic and struggled to meet the expectations of being an “ideal worker” and an “ideal parent.” Guilt, overwhelm, stress, burnout. These feelings were considered normal, almost a right of passage for the hundreds of working mothers I’ve personally worked with and the millions more juggling family and work in a country that lacks work-family policies and support compared to other OECD countries.
It is pretty clear that simply returning to “normal” for working parents and caregivers is not the answer. When we speak with working mothers, the thing that has changed is that they recognize that this situation is completely untenable. Feelings of frustration, overwhelm and stress have grown with each month to complete burnout, depression, anxiety, and pain. And on top of the 2.2 million women that have already been pushed out of the workforce, millions more are considering it.
In 2021, companies have an opportunity to shift the future of work in a way that will support working parents and caregivers and create a workplace culture that promotes and supports care for everyone.
The challenge facing companies is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution that is going to solve the unique challenges facing caregivers in the workplace. For years companies have implemented family-friendly policies and increased benefits to support caregivers. And while those policies and benefits are important, they don’t work without addressing the company culture. Employees who utilize those policies often find themselves sidelined in their careers or feel pressure from their peers and leaders not to use a benefit or participate in a program that could greatly support their needs.
This perpetuates the cycle of a weak culture leading to lower utilization, decreased leadership support, and subsequently less investment in programs or benefits that support their employees needs. The result often leads to lower engagement, worse productivity and performance, and ultimately retention challenges. The answer is clear: we must break the cycle and improve culture.
Transforming culture requires holistic change management practices that look at all aspects of the organization including leadership buy-in, policies, training, communication, and a fundamental understanding that organizations need to provide the right resources and support for employees’ unique needs.
Start with these 5 critical steps.
- Inquire and listen. Your employees know what’s working and what isn’t, so start with them. Surveys are a great way to get a baseline, however it’s important to have honest and open conversations. Using a deeply democractic process, employees will feel that their voices will be heard, valued, and therefore drive impact for the organization.
- Co-create changes. Armed with the information you’ve received from your employees, work with experts, inside and outside your organization, and engage employees in creating the design of new policies and programs.
- Align and ready leadership. As with any big change, leadership needs to be on board, but this is especially true with culture changes. Leaders in the organization are responsible for driving and modeling culture, so their commitment and involvement are critical.
- Launch and execute. Trial new programs or role it out to one department if necessary, but don’t wait!
- Assess adoption. Evaluate what’s working and what’s not. Identify what needs to adjust or evolve. Start the cycle over, and learn from your employees about their experience with new policies, programs, and benefits!
Creating a workplace culture that cares won’t happen overnight. It is a long-term commitment that starts with companies and their leaders recognizing that there is a caregiving crisis and that caregiver stigma exists. Companies must choose to proactively break the cycle that right now is pushing working parents, especially mothers and caregivers, out of leadership roles and the workplace completely.
Going back isn’t the answer. Let’s not accept a return to pre-pandemic normalcy for working parents. Instead, let’s move forward and commit to building company cultures where working parents and caregivers can thrive personally and professionally.