Companies are missing a big ‘pain point’ for working parents, and it’s causing some to leave the workforce

April 4, 2023, 12:30 PM UTC
Mother uses laptop while father plays with children at home
Parents are most likely to take a career pause when children are toddlers.
Monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images

Rebecca Wilhoit was one of 865,000 women who left the workforce in September 2020 amid the shift to remote learning, school closures, and unpredictable childcare availability for her three children. 

But this wasn’t the first time Wilhoit, 39, paused her career to take care of her kids—it was the third. Based in Greenville, S.C., Wilhoit now works as a writer in the tech industry. But her career path hasn’t been easy, as she stepped out of the workforce in both 2010 and 2016 thanks to a lack of employer support or flexibility for caregiving. 

“It’s hard. It’s hard to come back,” Wilhoit tells Fortune of her experience. Working parents know how to juggle priorities—and how to get the job done, she says. The key is knowing which balls are plastic and which ones are glass, she says. For her, employment is a plastic ball she’s had to let drop more than once. 

Wilhoit’s experiences are far from uncommon. Nearly two-thirds of workers (64%) have missed work in the past year due to their families’ health needs, according to Maven Clinic’s 2023 State of Fertility & Family Benefits report released this week. And while many organizations provide some type of paid parental leave when children are born, for most working parents, the inevitable strain between balancing work and caregiving actually comes after children graduate from the infant stage. 

Parents are more likely to take a career pause when their children are toddlers and preschoolers (37%) than to take time away to care for infants (34%), finds a new report from Vivvi based on surveys of more than 5,500 U.S. adults ages 25 to 44 conducted in conjunction with the Mom Project and Werklabs. 

That means for organizations, simply offering maternity and paternity leave is not enough to keep working parents employed long term—especially because most parents burn through their PTO in an attempt to extend their paid time at home with new children. So when kids get sick or childcare is unavailable, parents are often in a bind. 

“The biggest pain point for working parents is not when they come back from parental leave, but actually later, during ages 2 to 5," writes Charles Bonello, Vivvi’s cofounder and CEO and father of three toddlers. "And that's precisely because it's when parenting pressures increase, childcare expenses go up, and there's a lack of support in the workplace—both culturally and from a benefits standpoint.”

Parenting is a marathon, not a sprint

The vast majority of employers say they believe family benefits are extremely important to prospective and current employees, Maven’s research finds. It’s clear they understand the recruitment and retention value of these benefits.

Yet there’s still a disconnect. Nearly half of workers (41%) feel that their employer could better support their family and reproductive health needs, according to Maven’s findings. The gap between employer offerings and workers’ needs is likely due in part to the fact that working parents’ needs change over time. 

About 41% of respondents surveyed by Vivvi had access to parental leave. But only 28% had access to pumping accommodations and even fewer, 15%, had employer-sponsored family planning benefits. 

Sadly, the popularity of mid- and later-stage parenting benefits generally only diminishes by comparison. Only 9% of parents have access to paid caregiver leave, for example. Even among top employers, benefits like backup childcare are scarce. Among Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For, only 19 companies offer free emergency childcare benefits, averaging about 18 available days per year. 

“Parental leave is table stakes,” Bonello said. “The majority of workplace benefits and support exist during the first ‘sprint’ of parenthood, then drop off dramatically. What parents need is evolving support that fits their needs at every stage of parenting, not just during those first few weeks or months.”

Without support, working parents—particularly working mothers who often shoulder more of the caregiving responsibilities—do walk out the door. More than a third of workers (36%) have left or considered leaving a job because of inadequate family benefits, Maven finds. And the second most commonly requested benefit (after parental leave) is caregiver support, according to Maven. 

But it’s not just about better benefits alone. Flexible working arrangements and family-friendly work cultures are also essential. “Remote first is a big part of how I'm able to balance it all,” Wilhoit says. Prior to the pandemic, she was working out of the office four days a week. “It was workable, because, at the time, things were predictable,” she says. But the minute unpredictability around school and childcare set in, Wilhoit struggled balancing work and caregiving demands.

It didn’t help that her managers and company leaders didn’t offer genuine support, she says. While at one previous employer, Wilhoit says her one son was suffering from repeat ear infections—eight cases in the span of about six months. 

“I was the default parent, so…I would get the call from day care,” Wilhoit says. “That meant I had to take a lot more time away from the office.” One particular day—during what was roughly the sixth infection—Wilhoit had to leave work again to pick up her son and take him to the doctor. Her manager at the time told her it was fine, there's nothing she could do about it. So Wilhoit left with her laptop and planned to wrap up the day from home. “As soon as I left and the door shut behind me, she looked at everybody that sat in the cube and said, ‘This shit has got to stop.’” 

Wilhoit says one of her coworkers told her about it the next day, adding she was mortified over the incident and that it increased her already high stress levels. 

Working parents want trust and respect

Wilhoit’s experience goes to show that employer-sponsored benefits and flexible time-off policies are meaningless without a supportive workplace. “The company has to keep offering support at the moment of transition back to work in a way that [mothers] feel understood, validated, supported, and cared for,” says Alícia Rius, an international maternity coach. 

“We want to be trusted,” Wilhoit says. “Trust is such an essential part of the parenting experience, and it can really make or break employee morale and company culture when parents feel like they're not being trusted to make the best decision.”

For all the challenges the pandemic brought, it did highlight the needs of working parents—and many companies have responded by putting more accommodations and policies in place. Nearly half (46%) of companies surveyed by reported they are prioritizing childcare more in 2023. 

When Wilhoit transitioned from freelance back to a staff position last year, one of the biggest things she looked for during job interviews was whether the company truly had family-friendly attitudes and benefits. “Culture was a really big reason why I chose the company that I'm with now, because from our CEO all the way down to our various business unit executives and the managers, they trust you to do your job,” she says. 

And she believes that there’s a wider shift happening. “We do a better job equipping the next generation of workers for their careers by showing them what is healthy, what actual, real work-life balance looks like,” she says. “My generation and the generations to come are going to be the ones that really start to turn the tide in terms of flexibility.”

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