September practically resonates with a collective sigh from employees with kids across the UK. However it’s also a time of moist eyes and extra anxiety for parents whose progeny are heading off to school or university for the first time. Waving your little humans off to school or university is as big a step for parents as it is for kids.
The occasion of kids starting school and university is seen as an opportunity for parents – mothers especially – to return to work. By my own experience, this huge lifestyle change needs significant support if you’re to keep employees performing at their best and motivated to stay in employment.
Horrifyingly aware of the challenges that lay ahead, I skirted the issue by changing career and going freelance. I struggled to reconcile the flexibility I would need to parent my children once at school with the demands of a satisfying career. My husband worked abroad and one of us needed to ramp up our flexibility; a school day is significantly shorter than a nursery day, plus there are lengthy school holidays to navigate. Even with wrap-around care, it would be near impossible for me to to work 8-6 with occasional overnight stays on top of a commute, whilst my husband worked a short plane-journey away.
That said, many parents return to the workforce and strike the right balance – and employer support is a core factor in that. There’s no doubt, you can improve employee satisfaction and retention if you take the time to support employees with kids on your payroll.
Here are some considerations:
Help employees with kids plan for the change
September is the new academic year no matter what, and as HR professionals and managers you can help your employees with kids prepare for school and university entry. With school and university applications and visits taking place in the autumn before entry, it’s a great opportunity to kick off a conversation about how you could support your employees in what might be a rough ride.
Choosing and starting university can be a particularly drawn-out process;
“My number one piece of advice”, said Jules, a parent whose children are all at university now, “is to ask your employees to share as much information as they can, and as early as they can – it’s a really demanding time for parents. Even if you’re just the taxi service, there’s visits to go on, open days, it can be really disruptive”.
Take the time to remind your employees with kids about Employee Assistance Programmes that provide emergency childcare cover or that offer concierge services to help shortlist after-school clubs or review train or flight timetables for university visits. Little bits of help can clear some headspace for your employees, giving them the opportunity to focus on work and be more present in their home lives. Making the discussion open and supportive gives your employees the signal you’re there for them and sends an important signal to employees without kids or in earlier parenthood that you’re genuinely family friendly.
Employees with kids need short-term flexibility
Nothing prepares parents for the sheer amount of disruption that comes with a small child starting school. Don’t forget the potential fall-out that follows a less than rosy performance in A-levels either. Although everyone hopes their kids will fly through their exams, some students don’t and the clearing process can sap time and energy in a most unexpected way.
Be a step ahead and pre-warn managers of employees with kids at school-entry age, that late August and September isn’t the month to kick off big commitments. Your employees will appreciate your patience and understanding and reward you with loyalty and commitment. Chatting to one mum whose second child is starting at the same school as my youngest, I asked how she was getting on with the crazy disruption to her working day, expecting her to bemoan the situation.
Instead she was relaxed and upbeat;
“I work at the university” she told me “and they’re so understanding. We’re all parents and just get it – I’m working flexibly at the moment and pick up on work in the evenings to balance out the time I’m off”.
What more could you ask of your employer?
Make sure employees and managers are aware of remote working expectations. Perhaps you can agree to temporarily adjust a contract to make it more flexible in the run-up to September. Remind parents of their rights to parental leave – with the option to take 4 weeks unpaid leave per parent, per child, per year. It can be a workable solution if employees feel they can afford it.
Employees with kids going to uni might need a more sensitive approach
Sending your kids off to university or school is a big deal and you may notice it has a bigger effect on employees with kids than anyone expected. Whilst parents of younger kids might adapt more quickly, those with kids on the cusp of adulthood may have a tougher time adjusting to their newly empty nest. Even tough guy Gordon Ramsay admitted to feeling lost when his eldest son left home.
You can help by reminding managers and colleagues to be sensitive towards employees with kids who’ve just started uni;
“It was a bit like a bereavement”, one mother told me “I felt very, very sad but coped by keeping busy”. Another confided, “I know it’s irrational, but I feel like I won’t be able to cope without her”.
Strong feelings indeed. Encourage managers to be mindful of this emotional rollercoaster just as they would with another major life-change.
Money’s too tight to mention
Employees with kids starting at state schools may well cheer at the end of nursery fees, but for those with children starting university, financial anxieties are just beginning.
“The financial pressures on parents are really quite horrific at this stage of life” said Jules.
While state-funded financial support for students is the norm, parents still need to up their spending to support children at university on top of other financial commitments. From train and air fares to the vast outlay on new bedding, clothing, and kitchen equipment, the haemorrhaging of cash can be very strenuous on parents.
Encouraging managers to be mindful of employee’s lifestage and domestic challenges can be an important consideration during career conversations – are employees ready to step up to the next level or take on a more challenging but financially rewarding role now their kids are fledging the nest?
Bear in mind the impact of money worries on your employee’s emotional health as well. Financial strain can be a common cause of stress. Even missing a family holiday in favour of meeting the financial requirements of university can result in parents missing that opportunity to wind down properly – resulting in stress-related ill health.
Disruption? All in a day’s work for employees with kids
A friend of mine, let’s call her Vanessa, was called by the school office because she’d forgotten to apply sun cream to her 6-year old before school. It was blazingly hot and sun cream was certainly going to be needed. “It’s in her bag” she replied, “can someone help her do it?”. The righteous retort of “absolutely not” saw Vanessa driving 10 miles back to school to apply sun cream. Day disrupted? 100%.
The point of this little tale is that you never know when a working day is going to be disrupted. You can bet your bottom dollar those employees whose kids are the cause of such disruption will be beside themselves. Remember also, kids starting school get sick a lot. Plus, there are parent’s evenings, last minute open-classrooms and “bring your pet to school day”. It’s a huge amount to take on.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking employees with kids at university are immune from all this.
They’re not. Uni doesn’t always work out. My sister-in-law drove her son and all his stuff to university in Holland. Only for him to call two weeks later and say he couldn’t bear it any longer and had to come home. Cue the disruption of another drive to Holland, repacking his worldly goods into a family car and driving back. Was she happy? Hell no.
So long as your employees have pretty much spotless records and deliver against their commitments, there’s little to be gained by making a big deal out of unplanned disruption. Snow days and panicked phone calls happen, and a motivated and conscientious employee with kids will deliver their work by hook or by crook – you and their manager might just need to give them a little extra space to do what they need to do.
HR professionals and managers can do a lot to support employees with kids are starting university or school. Chances are you’ve already got the mechanics in place – encourage employees with kids to share their challenges and you’ll be in a better situation to support them through these big changes and your sensitivity towards their situation will pay dividends in the longer term.