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How can employers retain talent challenged by caregiving responsibilities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?

By Megan Sowa and Rachael K. McCann | October 20, 2020

Employers are supporting stressed caregiving employees and there is more they can do, according to our recent survey.
Compensation Strategy & Design|Future of Work|Health and Benefits|Talent|Total Rewards|Wellbeing
COVID 19 Coronavirus

When COVID-19 emerged in the U.S. earlier this year, it caused significant disruption for employers and employees alike. Both responded with adaptive measures that were thought to be short term. Previously considering caregiving benefits a mere perk, employers started viewing them as essential as they tried to enhance current offerings and policies in order to support employees caring for loved ones at home, including parents of young children. With schools abruptly closing, sending children home, the working parent tried to stay positive and ride out what we all hoped would be a short-term disruption. "Just make it to end of the school year. Everything will be back to normal this fall. We just have to power through!”

Today, more than a month into the new school year, we are not near a return to pre-pandemic normal. Many employees are struggling and risking burnout with an increasing number of them weighing the decision to leave the workforce altogether in order to focus on caregiving. Many working parents — especially women — may be forced to choose between their careers or their families.

Ongoing challenges for employers and caregiving employees

The threat of stress and burnout among employees could contribute to significant long-term challenges for employers. Working parents are more stressed than ever as they adapt to a new normal that, for most, includes children at home and supervised e-learning. In turn, the challenge for employers has become to ensure their benefits and policies can support caregiving parents and keep them in the workforce long term. Employers are thinking about and developing a supportive culture to best meet the ever-changing needs of their employees and navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic as it has evolved over the past five months.

School looks very different this academic year. Many students are not attending school in person, and those who do (full-time or hybrid) are uncertain how long they’ll be able to continue. Childcare centers, including after-school programs, have limited capacity or are closed, forcing parents to make difficult decisions among imperfect choices. The flu season and intermittent school closings to contain COVID-19 outbreaks further the uncertainty about the school year. The school calendar, once a steady certainty, has become continually in flux as schools close and reopen in efforts to mitigate the virus.

Employers that believe caregiving responsibilities are increasing the risk of employee burnout
Employers seeing higher mental health related claims
Employers that are at least moderately concerned about talent leaving

Many parents feel like they must make a choice between supporting their children’s educational and social development or focusing on their careers. Many employers feel they need to evaluate: What responsibility do companies have or should they have in providing educational or childcare support services? While the answers to these questions are unique to each employee and employer, we will share insights into what trends we are seeing to help guide employers to make the best decisions for their populations.

Financial stress

During COVID-19, many families are finding that additional caregiving expenditures are difficult to sustain. Some families face continued day-care expenses or school tuition in the absence of in-person sessions. With everyone at home, more money is spent on food and utilities. Parents may feel increased pressure to pay for tutors, computers and school supplies, and, especially for lower wage workers, this is simply unattainable. Necessary furniture for working or learning from home may be out of the question for strained household budgets.

Employers that have or plan to contribute to dependent care or flexible spending accounts
Employers providing discounts or subsidies for technology and supplies required for virtual learning
Employers offering or planning to offer benefits or stipends for parents with special needs

Reports of families eroding their 529 college savings plans to pay for education expenses today will only add to future financial stress. There are broader inclusion and diversity issues related to who even has access to and the ability to afford to these mechanisms and options.

The employer response

Since March, employers have had to quickly update and implement policies and procedures to help alleviate the stress on working caregivers. Seventy-four percent of employers indicated that support for employees with young and school-age children is a current priority, according to our caregiving survey. Yet when asked about their program’s effectiveness, only 39% of employers, across all industries, believe they have programs and policies in place to effectively support caregivers. We believe this presents an opportunity to do more.

Childcare support is a top priority for employers, but more can be done to increase the effectiveness of solutions

Employers continue to evolve in order to sustain business operations with an emphasis on remote and flexible work arrangements, and 97% of employers are offering flexible working hours for employees who are unable to perform their job due to caregiving responsibilities. But nearly half say they have not updated flexible work policies. Employer policies addressing flexibility in the past may have been subject to manager approval. Fifty-four percent of employers have or plan to offer manager training to ensure consistent application of flexibility and update process and policies (where possible) to ensure employees are not afraid to take advantage of these supports. Updating old policies could remove unintended barriers to access during COVID-19.

Anxiety around job security

Even with the flexible and remote work arrangements many companies have adopted, some working parents cannot sustain the pressures of performing their full-time jobs and childcare or teaching responsibilities over the long term. Twenty percent of employer respondents report taking or planning to take action this year to reset performance goals for employees. Another 20% are considering taking action. Employers can help minimize stress around potential job loss or negative performance reviews by adjusting these goals for all employees.

Businesses in industries with a greater proportion of essential workers (e.g., manufacturing, retail, energy and utilities, health care) are less likely to say their programs and policies are effective. These industries may find implementing solutions while maintaining business operations more difficult.

Most employers identify supporting employee caregivers. Few believe in the effectiveness of current policies
Most employers identify the support of employees with young and school-age children as a priority

Only around two-fifths believe their programs and policies are effective

Employers are finding that some solutions are not cost sustainable, even though they may provide short-term relief to employees. Flexibility and time off (paid or unpaid) may not be effective in populations where employees fear job loss or negative performance reviews for using it.

To support their business performance and employees with caregiving responsibilities, organizations are implementing or exploring several strategies and tactics such as:

  • Identifying work that can be done remotely (67%)
  • Updating or creating flexible work policies (51%) and allowing employees to determine when to get work done (39%)
  • Implementing new work processes, policies, tools and technology to support more flexible work and collaboration (48%)
  • Resetting employee performance goals (20%) or considering doing so (an additional 20%) to help alleviate employee anxiety about negative performance reviews or losing their jobs
  • Contributing to dependent flexible spending accounts for childcare/caregiving needs (17%)*

*Note compliance considerations: Organizations electing to contribute to employees’ flexible spending accounts or dependent care flexible assistant programs should be aware of regulations governing what they can be used for and should confirm with internal counsel.

Additional employer considerations

Our survey indicates that aside from flexible work, employees with caregiving responsibilities can use paid time off, vacation days or unpaid leave. With the risk of burnout and stress increasing, employers can look at alternative ways to offer time off to employees.

It’s important to note that unpaid leave is most helpful when offered with job protection. While more than half (52%) of employers report offering unpaid time off, many employees may be hesitant to take it because they cannot afford to be without a paycheck, are concerned about job loss or poor performance reviews and missed promotions. Employers need to reassure caregiving employees that their jobs won’t be in jeopardy if they take time off.

Collaborative and consistent approach

Ideally, a caregiving strategy should be developed in collaboration with broader business and workforce strategies. If possible, employers should ask employees or analyze employee data to better understand the needs of their population.

Develop and execute employee policies uniformly as intended

In many cases, needs will vary by business unit and geography. But all will need to develop and execute employee policies uniformly as intended.

The role of employee surveys

Employee insights and preferences are critical to implementing the right solutions. If possible, employers are encouraged to ask employees or analyze employee data to better understand the needs of their population and to tailor solutions. In many cases, needs will vary by business unit and geography.

Employee insights and preferences are critical to implementing the right solutions.

Half of employers surveyed report analyzing or planning to analyze employee data to estimate the number of employees with school-age children in their population to help them understand employee caregiving needs. Forty-three percent have or plan to conduct an employee survey. No matter the method, frequently reviewing employee data, insights and program utilization is a good way for employers to know how well their programs are meeting employee needs as the school year progresses. This way, as circumstances change, modifications can be made.

Additional resources for employers

Some employers are looking to caregiving vendors to deliver specific programs and services to employees. Caregiving vendors are quickly adapting their solutions to meet the needs of working parents.

Vendors are:

  • Increasing the number of providers in networks to keep up with demand
  • Offering more technology solutions to facilitate employee connections and “pod” creations
  • Expanding educational capabilities through partnerships or discounts with specialized education or e-learning support services

Nearly three in 10 employers provide discounts or subsidies for childcare centers, tutoring or other educational resources. If offering a subsidy or additional financial assistance is not an option, employers may want to provide access to resources through benefits.

Vendors are working together to create comprehensive offerings to enhance safety, create childcare benefit ecosystems or embed them within common existing employer channels such as pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs). Employers can do a quick assessment of current benefits, especially employee assistance programs, fertility solutions, and their health plans and PBMs to assess whether any caregiving benefits are now available.

Final thoughts

COVID-19 will be sticking around longer than many of us anticipated, despite our initial hope of a shorter-term disruption. Why not try to make the best of things? Employers can view this as an opportunity to create, or enhance, a supportive culture that embraces inclusion and diversity to retain talent.

Some quick suggestions to get started include:

  • Re-examine the mix of tactical and emotional wellbeing supports made available to working parents to ensure they reflect employee needs
  • Leverage working parents and related employee resource groups that can provide insights on how communications and resources resonate and can also share success stories
  • Update relevant flexible and remote work policies and provide training to managers to ensure consistent application (as possible)
  • Maintain an ongoing dialog with vendor partners, managers and business leaders related to emerging solutions available and utilized
  • Develop on ongoing strategy to pulse employees on their evolving caregiving needs, levels of stress, burnout and the effectiveness of solutions provided — providing a safe space could have an impact on retention and productivity
  • Continue to update policies and solutions to best meet with employee needs

Benefits, policies and resources that will support working parents through this pandemic can help retain talent and become permanent components of a successful workforce strategy.

Through compassion, empathy, support, kindness and flexibility, employers can continue to learn from each other and provide the support that their employees need.


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