Parents Are Quitting in Search for Work-Life Balance

Annie Erling Gofus - Jan 05 2022
Published in: Global Workforce
| Updated Apr 27 2023
Negotiating creative work arrangements with working parents may be a top competitive strategy in 2022

The entire workforce — from low-wage, frontline employees to more affluent workers and executives — is feeling the effects of the pandemic. After mass-layoffs and general economic insecurity, many predicted that workers would hold onto their jobs, but people seem more willing than ever to quit. According to analytics firm Visier, one in four workers quit their jobs in the past 12 months. 

The resulting labor shortage has left employers struggling to find people for vacant positions. Research on the Great Resignation has found that parents were more likely to have left their jobs since the start of the pandemic than their nonparent colleagues. Women have exited the labor force at twice the rate that men have, and about one-third of all mothers in the workforce have scaled back or left their jobs since March 2020.

Parents have obviously grappled with particular challenges in addition to the common stresses of working through the pandemic. This is not a traditional work-life balance scenario in which workers seek to achieve greater personal health and well-being. On the conventional hierarchy of needs, the duty to dependent children is a fundamental first-level need. Employment, resources, and security are second-level needs but essential to successfully meeting the first-level needs.

The inability to find or create a workable balance between the duties of childcare and work is too often forcing workers to make a bitter choice between them. Short of making that drastic choice, these workers are seeking creative solutions such as flexible schedules to meet all of their responsibilities. Employers that do not welcome these overtures as a business opportunity accept a competitive disadvantage.

The labor shortage hurts companies in many different industries, but parents leaving the workforce in high numbers can hurt organizations in other ways. The trend of parents and mothers leaving the workforce threatens to hamper organizations that are pursuing goals related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Parents also tend to be mid-career employees who often play key managerial roles, or are current leaders or are on the leadership track. 

McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2021 report found that women are more likely than their male colleagues to support employee well-being throughout the pandemic. Losing mothers in the workplace threatens to intensify the burnout experienced by workers since the pandemic began.

For all these reasons, employers must design a workplace that will support the needs of parents. Organizations must first understand why parents are resigning in record numbers to accomplish this.


Why the Pandemic is Pressuring Parents to Quit

Parents quitting jobs in the past two years cite caring for family among their top five reasons. Very simply, parents had nowhere to put their children for much of the pandemic. Many schools were closed for almost two consecutive academic years. Even as schools re-opened, parents dealt with intermittent quarantines, closures, and uncertainty. 

Daycare centers — already expensive and hard to find — closed in record numbers driving

up the cost for childcare and creating months-long waitlists. The loss of childcare forced parents — especially mothers — to choose between their jobs and paying for far-to-expensive alternatives. 

The ability to work remotely is among the top ten reasons why parents left their

job, but it’s at the bottom of the list for nonparents. McKinsey research on the future of remote work found that workers with young kids are more likely to prefer remote or hybrid work, contrasted with just 8% of parents who preferred an entirely on-site work model.


How Employers Can Keep Parents at Work

Organizations need to move fast to retain working parents and the standard bonuses like pay

raises and extra paid time off may not be enough. Companies that listen closely to their employees will learn that parents cite schedule flexibility and remote work as key requirements.

Embracing flexibility at work might be more than just giving parents extra paid time off for family needs. It might also look like a free day per week that parents can take whenever they need it, or leaving work when school ends and signing back into work once the kids are in bed.  

Some organizations are allowing parents to reduce their schedules by 60% or even to

take on less-demanding roles, all with the understanding that once they’re ready, they can ramp back up. Some employers are also embracing job-sharing which involves hiring someone to cover 20% of job duties.

Companies that get creative with childcare support also earn bonus points with working parents. In-house subsidized childcare provided by employers tends to increase parents’ engagement, loyalty, and productivity at work. The American clothing company Patagonia offers on-site childcare and says that it now has nearly perfect retention of new mothers and has reduced the overall turnover of parents to 25% below the general employee population. It is possible that companies with reduced full-time office staff may have new-found space to convert to such purpose.

On-site daycare isn’t always possible, so companies can consider offering parents fully

or partially subsidized off-site childcare. It is also essential that organizations work to equalize and normalize the use of parental leave programs by encouraging all parents to participate in them, not just mothers.

After embracing a flexible schedule and supporting childcare options, it is still possible that parents simply need a break from work. Some companies have developed processes that allow parents to take extended leave. The established process will also guide them as they return to the workplace. Experimenting with new policies can help working parents thrive, both at home and at work.

But the time to act is now because organizations cannot wait to see how parents

respond to the ongoing pandemic.