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I think we can all agree that 2020 hasn’t gone to plan. So far it has been a year of disruption, uncertainty, and distress for many. It would be hard to find a single Australian who has not been affected in some way by COVID-19 on their work, family, and personal wellbeing.

Unemployment is on the rise for a start. In the recent AIFS study, ‘Life During COVID’, almost half (43%) of respondents reported they or their partner had lost employment, or reduced hours or wages.

The impact on mental health has been significant with two-thirds of Australians reporting that they ‘felt anxious or worried for the safety of them self, close family members or friends, due to COVID-19.’

Deeply concerning is the rise of family and domestic violence. And poverty is growing in Australia with an estimated 13.6% living below the internationally accepted poverty line.

The proportion of people working from home rose from 7% before COVID-19 to 60% during it, and 40% of parents working from home were ‘actively’ caring for children at the same time.

And, as expected, this impact flows through to our children as we as parents and carers continue to bear the emotional and financial brunt of juggling the deepening divide between work and caring for loved ones, not to mention home-schooling!

Issues simmering just below the surface before, like the unequal division of household labour, or unaffordable child care, have well and truly bubbled over.

This all paints a grim picture, in particular for women and children.

The chasm between how Australians combine work and home life is no longer invisible and the current crisis has exposed the heart of the issues that are holding back progress. Caring for others in the community is not an individual’s problem alone to bear. It is a society challenge to solve – and that includes the business community too.

As the government and employers continue to respond to the economic and health impacts of COVID-19, there has never been a more critical moment in time to invest in the way Australian’s combine work and care – and it’s vital to our economic recovery that we do.

Why? Because the economic wellbeing of business and family households are interlinked.

Financial hardship and challenging health and care situations impact the ability of families to adequately meet the demands of work and family commitments. As such, employee engagement, retention, productivity and absenteeism are negatively impacted.

If we want to recover quickly from the economic shock that the pandemic has had on business and households, it’s time to bridge the divide between work and family once and for all.

Our workplaces need to be more family friendly – and employers and the government must be prepared to lead the change head on.

If we want a thriving economy with a healthy level of workforce participation, there are some fundamental work-home issues that need to be addressed.

We need urgent action on childcare

This current situation has shown the desperate need for more affordable, easily accessible early childhood education and care. 52% of Australian parents used approved care before COVID‑19, but only 26% during, despite the government’s temporary Child Care Relief Package. And now that fees are returning, many parents say that they will need to significantly reduce the number of days their children are in care or remove them altogether. This has a direct impact on work and home life, as parents reduce their hours to be able to care for children.

Being able to access appropriate care for children is a key piece in the working parent work-life puzzle, and both employers and government have an obligation to ensure parents are able to access educational, high quality childcare for their children while they work. Employers can support parents in doing this in a variety of ways, including providing areas in the workplace that are child friendly, offering subsidies, salary sacrificing for care, back up or emergency care, respite support, and vacation care programs.

Flexibility to manage the juggle

Australian working parents currently don’t have enough access to flexible work and paid family leave. These sorts of family-friendly policies, alongside a workplace culture that encourages a healthy balance of career and family life, support working parents to thrive in their career whilst feeling fulfilled at home. When parents are unexpectedly asked to both work and care for their children in a crisis like COVID-19, family-friendly policies become all the more important.

The current crisis has forced employers to adjust their business policies, allowing for more flexibility in work hours and of course, location. One major positive outcome to come from this is that employers and employees are realising that productivity remains the same, if not increases, when people are allowed to work from home and at flexible times.

Questions are arising – do we really need to be sitting in the office from 9-5? Are the face-to-face meetings necessary, or are the Zoom calls equally effective? Does it matter if employees work 7-3 instead, if it means more time at home with their families?

The whole way we previously worked has changed, and it seems highly unlikely that it will return to the exact same. Now is the perfect time to reassess policies and culture, and make those positive changes stick.

Equality at home and work

With so many working from home at this time, the line between work and home has become increasingly blurred, and our attention goes to household chores and caregiving – more specifically, who is doing what.

Despite the huge increase in both men and women working from home, studies are showing mothers continue to do most of the housework. The AIFS report found that among heterosexual couples both with and without children, 43 per cent of women were ‘always or usually doing the housework’ prior to COVID-19, and this remained almost the same at 41 per cent during COVID-19. When it comes to caring for the children, the survey had similar results – 54 per cent of parents said it was ‘always or usually’ the mother who ‘typically’ cared for the children prior to COVID-19, and dropped only to 52 per cent during COVID-19.

This unequal distribution of caregiving and household work is exasperated when employers instil the same gendered expectations in the workplace, through their policies and culture – for example, only giving ‘primary carers’ (usually mothers) parental leave while expecting fathers to take minimal time off. Gendered caring policies that continue to burden women with an unfair proportion of the caring load all need to be challenged.

Employers need to review their employee policies to ensure they are available in equal parts to both mothers and fathers, especially during this crisis when the effects of COVID-19 are not gender-specific. When there are gender-equal policies at work, this challenges the traditional gender norms by reflecting the value of equality and thus the importance of redistributing the unpaid care and household labour.

The pathway to change

Today, I stand united with UNICEF, Parents At Work, PANDA, Karitane and APLEN in releasing nine key family-friendly workplace recommendations to support working families on the pathway to economic recovery:

  1. Normalise flexible work
  2. Strengthen health, family and wellbeing
  3. Provide new parent support
  4. Address family and domestic violence
  5. Provide financial wellbeing services to families
  6. Review family leave policies
  7. Support childcare
  8. Educate leaders
  9. Promote gender equality

These recommendations will help to bridge the work and family divide post COVID-19. The government, employers, community services and families must work together to build a pathway for recovery – the health and wellbeing of individuals, their families and our economy depends on it.

By Emma Walsh, CEO, Parents At Work

First published on Women's Agenda.