Flexible work, parental support and childcare options: Nine ways to be a family-friendly employer


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Employers must normalise flexible work, address domestic violence and review their paid parental leave policies in order to be family friendly during COVID-19 and beyond, according to a number of key agencies that have come together to issue nine recommendations to the business community.

Other recommendations include strengthening health and safety measures, and educating leaders on responding to flexible work requests and role design to ensure that good policies don’t get blocked at the management level.

The key agencies behind the recommendations include Parents At Work, UNICEF Australia, Karitane and the Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia (PANDA) organisation.

They’ve issued the recommendations following the findings of the massive 2019 National Working Families Report by Parents At Work, surveying more than 6000 parents and carers, and detailing the physical and mental health challenges that many working parents suffer.

The survey found 62% of respondents were finding it difficult to manage their own physical and mental health as they struggled to juggle work and caring responsibilities, with one-third noting that the juggle was contributing to stress and tension in their relationships with partners and children. Around half of female parents and carers said the juggle was leading to considerable stress.

Those results were released late last year, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation has changed considerably in 2020, as working parents have taken on additional challenges covering everything from school closures and remote learning to further financial and emotional stress associated with the economic downturn.

“Family health is critical to business recovery”

Parents At Work chief executive Emma Walsh said that with working parents now facing unique challenges, it’s more important than ever that employers get their support measures right. Doing so will support the resilience of businesses and put them on track to ‘build back better’.

“This is all about embracing the future of work, recognising that the health and wellbeing of families are critical to business recovery and success,” Walsh said.

The recommendations are also critical to the wellbeing of children, said Nicole Breeze, director of Australian Programs at UNICEF Australia.

“The evidence shows that as well as leading to healthier, better-educated children, family-friendly workplace policies can also drive gender equality and economic growth,” Breeze said.

“The business benefits are also well documented, including better workforce productivity and the ability to attract, motivate and retain employees.”

Karitane chief executive Grainne O’Loughlin noted that her organisation had long been seeing stressed and anxious working parents in need of support, even prior to COVID-19.

And Julie Borninkhof, chief executive of PANDA, said workplaces needed to ensure that staff had access to the necessary tools and resources to feel supported at work so they could do the best work possible at this time.

Below is an edited version of the recommendations. See the full list here.

1. Normalise flexible work

This includes noting that one size does not fit all, and ensuring employers can meet “fluid demands” of work and home by embedding flexible work practices — and enabling workers to meet essential work and caring commitments as they change and evolve.

2. Strengthen health, safety and wellbeing

This includes accepting that staff adapt differently to times of stress, and will need varying levels of support in coping. The group urged employers to measure the work-life satisfaction of employees, devise and implement a wellbeing strategy, and to create open and safe communication channels.

3. Provide new parent support

Employers must support the mental health of staff members expecting a baby, on parental leave or returning to work. Practical parenting support should be readily available to staff, including as they transition back to work. Employers can also aim to involve staff in the development of tools and resources designed to support a culture of healthy work-life balance.

4. Address family and domestic violence

This includes ensuring policies are up to date and offering guidance on family violence leave allowances. It also includes support for managers and other leaders on how to recognise the signs of family violence, and how to respond where appropriate.

5. Provide financial wellbeing services to families

With working parents commonly facing financial pressures — and especially now during COVID-19 — employers can do more to support them during uncertain times by being transparent about job security and offering clear financial resources. An Employee Assistance Program could also include options for financial coaching.

6. Review your family leave policies and make them gender equal

Employers should encourage all employees — male and female — to take parental leave or carer’s leave if they require it, and push to challenge traditional gender norms regarding who takes on such unpaid work. Employers should review their paid and unpaid leave options, and consider introducing a ‘family leave’ option to complement existing personal leave provisions.

7. Support childcare options that are safe and appropriate

Investing in childcare and wider caring support benefits can reduce employee turnover, improve absenteeism, and enhance employee engagement. Employers should consider where they can better support childcare options for staff, such as by offering subsidies, salary sacrificing, offering back up emergency care, respite support, vacation programs, and making their offices family friendly.

8. Educate leaders

Managers must lead by example in their decision making, communication, and practice of the organisation’s approach to family-friendly workplaces. Employers should establish processes to ensure flexible work requests are not automatically blocked at the management level. They should invite feedback from managers on the challenges and concerns they have around resourcing, team impact and job design. They should also ensure that those working part-time are not expected to carry a full-time load.

9. Promote gender equality

With women disproportionately taking on care-giving and household chores at home — and more likely to be lower paid, working part-time and casually employed — the group urges employers to promote gender equality in their workplace policies. Especially in ensuring paid parental leave and flexible work is offered as much to men as it is to women, as this can ultimately contribute to shared care at home.

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.

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