As we wrote in April, the kids are alright, but the parents are not. Entering month seven of "working from home" (and beginning a new school year), our circumstances cannot be sugar-coated — the pandemic, as Jessica Grose writes in The New York Times, is a mental health crisis for parents.

"We need to stop calling this 'working from home,' because it's not working," says Danna Greenberg, Management Professor at Babson College, and co-author of Maternal Optimism: Forging Positive Paths Through Work and Motherhood. "This is working and parenting simultaneously in a single location. The more we use the nomenclature of 'working from home,' the more parents and managers are learning themselves into thinking that they should be performing at the same speed and level as they would be during a normal WFH afternoon."

According to the American Psychological Association, in April and May, parents with children at home under 18 were markedly more stressed than non-parents. And as Grose reports, more recent data from the University of Oregon's RAPID-EC survey shows that 63% of parents with children under age five said they felt they had lost emotional support during the pandemic. "According to a study from Harvard's Graduate School of Education, 61% of parents of 5, 6 and 7 year olds in Massachusetts agreed or strongly agreed that they felt 'nervous, anxious, or on edge' because of the pandemic," Grose continues.

Contributing to this chronic stress is that while there is no end in sight, for many working parents, workplace expectations are not changing. Which leads to an even more complex issue for us as executive leaders: How do we manage parents right now — extending support while also keeping our businesses on track?

"Managers and parents alike are running out of patience," says Greenberg. "Initially there was a lot of empathy — we laughed at the kid running into our Zooms, or the mom who had to run off a call. But after a few months, we kind of decided, okay, let's get back to work now."

However, as empathy wears off, complexity for working parents is only getting more intense. Every town, city, childcare, and family is approaching learning differently. "The range of experiences is far beyond anything a working parent — or the manager of a working parent — has ever seen before," says Greenberg. Nor does caregiving only extend to working parents; for many of us, caring for elderly parents, other people's children, and other adults is resulting in similar overwhelm.

Thus, the only universal for working caregivers is that one size does not fit all. There is no "normal" for anything beyond this week (or today). Predictions you make for your employees' schedules will probably flop. You could either be frustrated, or anticipate this reality.

"I planned my entire teaching schedule around my kids being in school Mondays and Tuesdays based on their last name, only to learn last minute that they were changed to Wednesdays and Thursdays," says Jamie Ladge, Greenberg's co-author, and a Management Professor at Northeastern University. "On the first day of class I told my students, 'I have no clue what my teenagers are doing right now. Our schedules were messed up and I feel like a bad mom. I am going to have a lot of flexibility with you, and you’ve got to have a lot of flexibility with me.'"

Such honesty is crucial to facilitating productivity with all direct reports, but especially working parents. "Ultimately, this is all about trust," says Greenberg. "Many employers didn't want to go fully remote because they didn't trust their employees to get their work done. The irony is that the more you trust your employees to work autonomously, the more efficient they become. The work will get done."

On a regular if not weekly basis, managers should have explicit conversations with their employees, asking questions like: What does your situation honestly look like this week? Do you have childcare? If not, what do you need for support from work? These questions will help you create individualized weekly goals and schedules that encourage, rather than ignore, the realities of a working parents' situation.

"When people get stressed, they get more tense and their focus narrows, which hinders their ability to think about whole systems," says Heidi Brooks, Senior Lecturer on Organizational Behavior at Yale School of Management. "As the manager, it's your job to help them routinely pull up and see the whole picture. Keep them aware of what absolutely needs to get done, and what would be a 'nice to have.' Remind them of how much they are valued in the bigger picture of your organization, and how their work connects to and supports others."

Emphasizing an employee's team value is both motivating and grounding, especially as working parents continue feeling like they're not doing enough (at home or at work).

"Parents often forget the unique skills they bring to the workplace, but the flip side of their stress is that as a parent, you need to be able to roll with difficult, unexpected situations. This is a skill many non-parental employees do not have," says Brooks. "Parents are some of the most valuable people to work with on unprecedented issues and strategies right now, as they are more used to quickly adjusting their mindset and thinking outside the box."

As the manager, you should also expect all direct reports to be a bit more terse than normal. Recognize that it's not about you. "Under stress and duress, even the best of us lean into defensiveness, criticism, and stonewalling," says Brooks. "And while these 'communication flips' can impact your relationships, it's smart to realize that people aren't necessarily upset with you, they're just frayed around the edges. You can counter their edginess with compassion, curiosity, and inquiry."

All of this being said, manager support can only go so far if it is not coupled with shifts in workplace expectations. While you may not be able to rewrite your employees' job descriptions, you can explore whether certain assignments may take longer to complete. And while it may be tempting to reward non-parents who are taking on significant extra work right now, it's worth considering whether performance-based promotions and raises make sense this year (as compared to a universal percentage increase in salary or bonuses).

"I don't think there is any way to slice and dice performance over the past year in a way that will not hurt working parents," says Greenberg. "Instead, many companies are opting for performance coaching for all employees." In these sessions, managers can ask questions like: What did the past year look like for you? What unique challenges did you face, and how did you approach them? What might we do as we continue forward in this COVID environment to help make you more productive and happy?

Perhaps most importantly, now is a time for managers to be hyper-aware of benevolent sexism. While empathy for the complexity of a working mother's situation is key, assuming she cannot take on flex assignments because she "just has too much going on" is setting her back, not propelling her forward. This is a balancing act. Instead of making assumptions, ask questions and remember we are all doing our best to make it work. "A mere statement of solidarity with working parents' struggles and some extra flexibility with our timelines can go a long way," says Ladge.

Originally Published: September 25, 2020