The Parent Trap: The Challenge of Balancing Work and Home, and how Family-Oriented Benefits Can Help

by | Nov 5, 2015 | Business

Paul Ryan, recently elected Speaker of the House, unexpectedly turned media attention to the issue of balancing work and family life. Reluctant to take the post due to the fundraising and travel time associated with the position, Ryan insisted on being allowed to continue to spend weekends with his family in Wisconsin. Many Americans face hard choices about how to divide their time between work and family. Ryan’s reluctance to take the position of Speaker sparked conversations among those of us with less lofty titles about the difficulties in finding an appropriate work-life balance in an increasingly fast-paced and job-oriented world.

While few of us have jobs that rival the responsibilities of the Speaker of the House, many working parents still struggle to find time to spend with their families. According to a 2014 White House Report, 46% of working Americans said their job demands interfered with their family life.  And while working mothers have statistically found it harder to balance work and family time, traditional gender roles have begun to converge with more fathers expressing the desire to take on parenting and household responsibilities over career advancement. Fathers now spend more time engaged in housework and child care than they did half a century ago, and the amount of time they devote to work has decreased slightly over that period. During the same time period, women have made major strides in education and employment, which has lead to their increased participation in the workforce. In 2011, mothers spent, on average, 21 hours per week on paid work, up from eight hours in 1965. Fathers have not yet caught up to mothers with time spent caring for children and doing chores, but fathers’ increasing acceptance of household responsibilities suggests that more and more of them will face dilemmas in trying to divide their time between work and home.

The competing pressures of home and work have already reduced workforce participation amongst women. After rising for six decades, the percentage of women in the American work force peaked in 1999, at 74% for women between 25 and 54, but has fallen to 69% today.  Sixty-one percent of nonworking women said family responsibilities were a reason they weren’t working. Nearly three-quarters of unemployed mothers said they would consider working if a job offered flexible hours or allowed them to work from home to care for their families.

The competing demands of work and home have an even greater impact in the executive suite. Women are severely underrepresented in managerial and C-level roles. Just 14% of the top leadership positions at companies in the S&P 500 are held by women, and even worse, out of 500 companies, there are only 24 female CEOs. A major factor in the underrepresentation of women in management stems from organizational mistrust of women with children known as the “motherhood penalty.”

One of the strategies that companies have employed to retain working parents, and women in particular, is to offer benefits that target families and implement policies that allow parents to balance work and family obligations. Indeed, companies have used benefits as a means of competing for talented workers, and younger workers and educated women are increasingly demanding them.

Here are five types of benefits and policies that employers can offer to help retain the parents in their workforce and spur recruitment of talented employees that have to attend to obligations at home:

  • Health care benefits for families: Health care benefits are an obvious concern for parents, who seek coverage during and after pregnancy and pediatric care. In addition to making your business more attractive to parents, these policies also lower health care costs overall, by increasing access to preventative care and reducing hospitalization, and increase productivity by reducing absenteeism.
  • Benefits that promote greater family time: We’ve previously written about the numerous policies that employees can implement to give employees flexibility as to when they work, including flextime and telecommuting. These policies may also improve employees’ productivity, as employees that work from home tend to get more done than employees working in the office.
  • Unlimited vacation days: While this benefit sounds like an unrealistic perk, the rationale for providing it is simple:rather than set an arbitrary number of vacation days, allow employees to determine for themselves when they need to work and when they can afford to take time off. Implementing this policy can also be a significant savings for companies that utilize a paid vacation policy, which results in the company paying out unused days when the employee leaves.
  • Virtual assistants: Personal virtual assistant services for parents in your workforce are a great option for parents to delegate many personal tasks. Your workers don’t have to complete annoying tasks and can spend more time being productive.
  • Celebrate families: Create opportunities to build community with your workforce. Annual events such as Take Your Child to Work Day, an annual company picnic, or community service activities demonstrate an appreciation of your employees’ family lives and an understanding that they have important priorities outside of the workplace.

Notably, family-friendly benefits don’t only have the advantage of improving recruitment and retention. They often result in increased productivity and, in some cases, reduced costs. As a greater portion of the workforce takes on more significant childcare responsibility, the advantages that these benefits will offer both employees and employer will only multiply.

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