For a fleeting moment this summer, declining rates of COVID-19 coupled with a heartening vaccine rollout provided a much-needed hope for a return to normalcy this fall. Employers, from Amazon to Ford, announced return-to-work dates, and the Department of Education outlined reopening safety procedures in its “Return to School Roadmap.”

We all know what came next. The Delta variant entered the scene, derailing our much-anticipated return. While we have all felt its collective and lingering impact, parents of young children have been dealt an even worse blow than the prior pandemic marathon. This wave is hitting closer to home. Just this past month, a record number of children were hospitalized with COVID-19. That impact is now absorbed not just in
rising pediatric admission rates, but in persistent, generalized anxiety and deepening burnout that has transformed a short crisis into a long-term catastrophe for working parents, particularly working mothers grappling with new and prolonged uncertainty in all areas of life and work.

This past year, report after report showed the lost productivity, employment, and mobility of working mothers—most shockingly captured by last September’s McKinsey report predicting working women would lose a decade of progress due to COVID-19. Sadly, a year later, the bad news is getting worse and while many employers’ push to create flexibility has benefitted working parents in the short term, the demand for a transformational shift in how we support the 40 million working parents in our companies is here. How employers respond to their needs will define the new winners and losers in the culture and talent wars amongst the nation’s top employers.

At Cleo, we recently surveyed over 1,500 full and part-time working parents to take a pulse on how they’re feeling after 18 months, and the data tells an unfortunate story about the continued lack of career progression for women, and increased concerns around safety, pediatric mental health, childcare, and other systemic challenges. Since the start of the pandemic, nearly half of men feel they’ve advanced in their careers more than or as much as expected, but only 1 in 3 women said the same; meanwhile, underrepresented parent groups are particularly on edge:

  • Four in 10 working parents are considering leaving their jobs, with parents of color 28{44affb6c5789133b77de981cb308c1480316fee51f5fd5f1575b130f48379a33} more likely to be considering a job change
    right now
  • Less than half of LGBTQ+ parents feel they can be themselves at work, and specifically, feel less supported in their role as a parent

This data is a call to action to transform our approaches from the small corrections in the margins, to impactful solutions in the center of our HR and Benefits strategies. Fortunately, many companies—including those in the Fortune 50—are charting new, bold paths to swap out piecemeal, traditional solutions for holistic support that meets the personal and urgent needs of working parents.

As we face another difficult winter, how can we ensure that we’re providing lasting support not just for some working parents, but for all? Here are three pieces of advice employers can use to guide them in creating inclusive support for all parents:

Strategic employers are acting boldly, now

It’s clear we have come to yet another turning point in this pandemic and the data and the concerns of your working parents make it obvious this isn’t time to collect more data, it’s time to be bold and show your working parent population you have their backs. If you’re a business leader, don’t let Delta be another rude awakening and watch the parents who have been holding on for dear life walk away. Celebrate your efforts to date, but know that there’s more you probably can (and should) be doing as we gear up for this second wave.

Evolving parental benefits to meet the needs of the modern family after years of status quo is no easy feat, but all it takes is a few companies making bold and courageous choices to inspire others to follow. Inclusivity is business imperative, so here’s to throwing out business as usual and creating a better normal for every parent.

ERGs are great for starting conversations, not corrections

Most companies’ first instinct when considering ways to support parents or other vulnerable groups within an organization is to roll out and support Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). While the groups are excellent for fostering connection and sharing ideas, employers should ensure their strategies for ERGs are centered around being a forum for conversation and learning, not a solution. Too often, in fact, do companies rely on ERGs to “check a box” against their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts without taking real and meaningful action to solve problems or fill gaps in the support system for their employees.

Use conversations from ERGs as a guide to inform your benefits strategies and offerings – these are a great way to take a pulse on what your parents need most. Importantly, when rolling out new offerings, make sure you include all parents in your roll-out, not just a subset.

Don’t leave behind parents of older children, or those with specialized needs

Parents are facing unprecedented issues. Our survey revealed that more than half of working parents reported having a child with an urgent health concern and a third reported having a neurodivergent child or child with a mental health condition. Meanwhile, within our community, we’ve seen a huge uptick over the past year in companies requesting support for school-aged children, despite most employers focusing narrowly on maternal health in their working parent offerings. Whether managing a pediatric mental health issue or seeking educational support for school-aged kids, parents need more than the run-of-the-mill care to feel seen and supported and to stay engaged.

One of the best ways to ensure that each working parent receives the care and support they need is by offering a broad range of services across all stages of the parenthood journey from alternative paths to parenthood to mental health support. Above all, remember that flexible options empower working parents to choose what works best for them, rather than being forced into a prescriptive and potentially ill-fitting solution.

Sarahjane Sacchetti is the CEO of Cleo.