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How Employers Can Help Parents Beat the Back to School Care Jitters

Heidi Erdmann-Sullivan on August 24, 2017 10:30 AM

Parenting comes with a lot of hard lessons, particularly the one about accepting things you can't control: the grocery store Tic Tac tantrum, the middle of the night double ear infections, and the whole sandwich coming back home in the lunchbox (along with the empty chip and cookie wrappers).  

When it comes to being a working parent, this lesson is especially tough.   As skilled and prepared as parents may be in arranging care for their children, it's both the unplanned and planned circumstances that can throw the whole situation out of control.

So, as back to school season (and added child care stress for working parents everywhere) gets underway, here are six ways employers can help employees stay focused, less stressed and more present – physically and mentally - at work.    

  1. Acknowledge the gap between total days off from school and total days off at work
    Most employers recognize that absenteeism and presenteeism are real, costly workplace issues.  And while many companies acknowledge that child care issues are a major factor (a recent study shows they cause more absenteeism than any other family-related matter, accounting for 72 percent of all absenteeism),  most don't realize that one of the biggest culprits is a misaligned school schedule (the average school year has 29 days off, whereas the average private-sector employee has 16 paid days off).  This gap costs the U.S. economy more than $55 billion in lost productivity annually.   Equally important to HR's awareness of this fact is that of leadership and management.   Make it known around your organization.  

  2. Take away the stigma around back-to-school talk
    In a member survey, 44 percent of working parents said they’re worried their boss and/or colleagues will think they’re not committed when their work schedule is affected due to parental responsibilities. But the reality is there’s no way around it – working parents’ schedules are often affected, and they simply need greater flexibility, especially at certain times during the school year.  Whether they’re openly talking about it or not, they’re stressed about it.

    Help erase some of the stigma around talking about back to school stressors at work by:
    • Officially starting the conversation at your organization, especially with participation from leadership and management.
    • Using timely HR newsletters and company-wide meetings to reiterate helpful policies (including applicable State-Mandated School Actitivies Leave) and benefits.
    • Encouraging managers to ask their working parents in their weekly one-on-one meetings how they’re managing with back to school schedules (and reminding them what resources are available to them) so that employees don’t feel the burden to bring it up themselves.  

  3. Prompt working parents to check school calendars with regular, timed reminders
    Depending on the district, school calendars for the following year are made available as early as 9 months in advance. Prompt your working parents to check district websites for calendars late fall the year prior, again in the spring and mid-summer.  Better yet, circulate and/or post a link to the calendars for the districts and/or schools that you know serve your employees.  Remind them that the average district has 29 days off each year,  to start their planning now - and utilize HR for support.   

  4. Keep parents focused at work by setting aside time during  work when they can plan
    It’s exciting, it’s nerve-wrecking, and at times, it’s all-consuming. Back to school is a whole family affair.   In a member survey, 44 percent of working parents said they feel frequently or often distracted at work during back to school.  Mid-August also marks peak season at for job postings by families seeking care. 

    Acknowledge parents are scrambling to plan and help them pro-actively tackle the list:
    • Set aside a few private offices or small conference rooms the last few weeks of summer where employees can sign up for 1-hour slots to review sitter resumes and make some calls, order school supplies or clothes, or take some time to fill out paperwork.
    • Schedule quarterly care planning drop-ins in the conference room where parents can grab a print-out of their children’s school calendars, browse vacation-week camp brochures or local after-school extracurriculars, and exchange ideas with co-workers.'s 2017 Babysitter Survey reports that 62 percent of parents say they'd share a sitter with a friend. Help facilitate some connections and potential sitter share opportunities in your office.  
    • If your organization isn’t currently offering child care benefits, help employees understand if their EAPs, FSAs and other resources can help fund coverage – especially for special circumstances when care is critical.  Parents report that sitters hired for before- and after-school hours are paid nearly $2 extra and 50 percent of parents would pay at least $3 more per hour for a last-minute sitter.  Employer-sponsored resources could help offset some of these added care costs. 

  5. Schedule Event Care at the office for popular school holidays
    Columbus Day. Election Day. Religious holidays.  School may be out, but work’s on.  Poll your working parents late summer and determine the top 5 common holidays between their children’s schools and care centers.  Consider offering company-sponsored, 9-5 pm event care at your office for those days.  Parents will appreciate knowing at the start of the school year that they could have nearly one-fifth of their children’s days off already taken care of by the company.  And kids will LOVE the special chance to be at Mom or Dad’s workplace for the day.

  6. Offer Backup Care benefits
    When it comes to helping working parents solve their back to school care needs, more family-friendly policies, including generous paid time off, work-life integration programs and flexible work arrangements are important pieces to a total solution, but child care benefits are key.  In fact, 85 percent of working parents said they wished their employer offered child care benefits, according to the 2017 Cost of Care Survey by  Scrambling to solve a care crisis can be debilitating to the work day for employees, so offering them an allotment of backup care days to use for both planned and unplanned circumstances helps arm them with one more, highly effective tool.  

While the middle of the night ear infections will always elude them, parents can find which grocery stores have the candy-free check-out aisles, and learn that the occasional lunchbox strike on chips and cookies can result in the whole sandwich getting eaten - first. But regardless of how skilled working parents become in arranging care for their young children,  the inevitability of coverage challenges - both planned and unplanned - will never go away. Employers who help their working parents meet these challenges during back to school season - and throughout the year - will not only make for happier, more productive employees, but also for an organization that ultimately, moves to the head of its class. 

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Heidi Erdmann-Sullivan

As Director, Sales and Marketing at, Heidi is responsible for developing innovative, results-driven programs for Care@Work – a consumer-centered portfolio of family care for employers and their diverse workforce. Passionate about helping HR professionals improve the lives of their employees, Heidi follows and writes about the top trends and research impacting both employees and employers in the workplace, including the future of work, consumerism and HR, building employer brands, pay equity and paid leave policy, and company culture. Prior to joining, Heidi led marketing teams at a variety of technology companies including Constant Contact. She lives north of Boston with her husband Brian and their “daughter” Lexi – a 10 lb. Shih-Tzu therapy dog.