Helping Parents Balance “Back to School” with “Return to Worksite”

Labor Day has come and gone, signaling the end of summer vacation. In normal times, parents might be breathing a sigh of relief as their kids resume school schedules – but this year’s back-to-school season is still far from normal. While most school districts are determined to have students in classrooms full time, the reality is that parents have to be prepared for outbreaks and quarantines and periods of online learning. All of which adds to the stress for employees juggling work and caregiving responsibilities.

In a new survey, we asked 2,000 employees on their feelings about their jobs and their biggest concerns right now. When we compared the responses of those with and without caregiving responsibilities (defined as caring for children up to age 18 or for elderly or disabled adults), we found some important differences. Caregivers – who accounted for 60% of all those surveyed -- are more concerned about COVID-19 and more concerned about returning to onsite work than non-caregivers. They are more likely to support vaccine mandates – perhaps not surprising given they interact with children not yet eligible for vaccination or with adults who may be more vulnerable to the disease. 


Caregivers are also significantly more likely to say they would prefer full-time remote work – 53%, compared to just 33% of non-caregivers. While this is an argument for flexibility, especially during what is likely to be a rocky school year, it also has important implications for employers that believe at least some degree of onsite working is critical for employee development and business success.

Essential support for caregivers, now and going forward

It’s important to communicate now, if you haven’t already, about the policies and resources you have in place to support caregivers while they can’t count on consistent coverage from schools and daycare programs. We are seeing more employers offer back-up care (for urgent and unplanned needs) and caregiver stipends or subsidies to offset the cost of care. Vendors providing short-term care that is subsidized by the employer may also offer discounts to existing centers and partner programs for additional care, which makes them more attractive to both employers and employees. The disruption caused by the pandemic has also led more employers to explore employer-sponsored daycare centers.

But while the pandemic has heightened the pressure on caregivers – and the need for employers to act swiftly to alleviate it – caregiving is a chronic rather than an acute need. Employers need to think about supporting caregivers for the long-term with flexibility at work (flexing when and how work gets done), flexibility from work (leave and time-off policies), and with caregiving benefits (support, resources and subsidized care). 

While we’ve seen a clear trend towards adding parental leave, it’s less common for employers to provide caregiving support – which means this is an area where you could differentiate your offerings from other employers. There are a range of options to consider:

  • Low cost/creative support. Create toolkit for managers to help them promote existing benefits and have helpful conversations. Encourage flex-time practices that help with family needs, like blocking time on the calendar for afternoon pick-ups from school.
  • Navigation and digital tools. Provide a “marketplace” for employees to search for and source care, including child care, senior care, pet care and self-care. Consider digital resources such as virtual tutoring services and homework help, or virtual/on-demand classes to keep children engaged during school breaks when parents are working.
  • Concierge and advocacy services. Partner with a vendor that provides concierge services to source and find care/solutions. Leverage a vendor that serves as the “front door” for parents to find and use existing benefits or services such as leave, family planning, and back-up care.
  • Financial support for childcare. Contribute to dependent care flexible spending accounts, or provide a stipend or subsidy to offset additional costs associated with the pandemic.

We believe that employers who act during today’s caregiver crisis will benefit in both the short-term and the long-term. We know from our research that employees who have felt supported by their employers throughout the pandemic are more likely to stay at their current jobs – and are also more energized at work. Consider, too, that caregiver support can be especially valuable to less-advantaged segments of the workforce, and can support efforts to broaden your organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion strategy. Where once employers may have been concerned about providing “special treatment” for caregivers, today leading employers see enhanced support for caregivers as key to recruiting and retaining the talent they need.

Lauren Mason assisted with this post by providing results from Mercer’s new study, Inside Employees’ Minds. We surveyed 2,000 full-time employees (1,000 hourly; 1,000 salaried) in companies with more than 500 or more employees. The survey was fielded from August 20 to August 30. Complete results of the study will be released in October.

Beth Umland
by Beth Umland

Director of Research, Health, Mercer

Megan Neumann
by Megan Neumann

Principal, Total Health Management, Mercer

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