Parents should be able to take school holidays off
FOR most parents of school-aged kids, Christmas time usually elicits the following emotions: fear, worry and exhaustion, intermittently cut with glimpses of joy.
While there is nothing more amazing than seeing your child's eyes light up on Christmas morning, the festivities and holiday good cheer all too soon transform into a game of: "What shall I do with my child for the rest of January?" and: "When am I going to find the time to do it around my work?"
Some parents may be so lucky as to have the constant support of the grandparents throughout school holidays. Or maybe they are friends with women (let's face it - it's mainly mothers who stay home) who either take leave over the holidays and can pool resources, looking after each other's kids, or stay at home full time.
Perhaps they have older children who can babysit, or they are well off financially, and can hire a babysitter full time.
But the reality is, come school holidays, working parents usually end up in a mad scramble to find someone to care for their children while they are forced to go back to workplaces still structured according to the 38-40 hour week.
Disproportionality (and dispiritingly), this mad scramble is left to the mothers, who, despite working, also continue to carry the burden of childcare.
As it stands, childcare - whether it's for babies, toddlers or primary school children - is woefully inadequate and under-resourced, with both government and workplaces slow in modernising to accommodate this reality.
According to the last census taken in 2011, 68 per cent of coupled mothers and 57 per cent of single mothers were in paid employment. While women's work arrangements were usually part-time (36 per cent), a quarter of women were working full time.
So how can we fix this? Any problem of this depth requires creativity and a willingness from all parties to compromise, and I'd begin with the workplace.
Despite it being 2017, the workplace has changed very little to accommodate working parents.
Work structure still revolves around the command and control system, where employees have a leader to report to, who then tells them what to do, and when to do it.
This kind of arrangement does not allow for flexibility and collaboration, two key components for creating a workplace that allows parents to manage both their personal and working lives.
I believe that all parents should have the option of always getting school holidays off. In fact, I believe that everyone - parents and non-parents alike - should have several options available to them when negotiating a job contract as to how they could work.
As the mother of two kids and the CEO of a company, I know how hard it is to structure your life in such a way that you don't miss out on either side.
I have negotiated flexible working arrangements for most of my career (admittedly mainly since I had my first child 13 years ago), which allowed me to work flexibly throughout most of my career.
This, however, does not mean I've been immune to the all-too-often conflicting realities of work and family commitments.
I have had organisations make me come into the office in January, even though there was little or no work to do, only because I didn't have any more leave available.
There have been other situations where projects were launched during school holidays which required everyone to be all hands on deck even though two thirds of the team (of about 30) had children, and many had asked for the launch date to be pushed outside of the midterm school holidays.
And then there are the good old meetings being scheduled at 8am or 5pm, which makes dropping off and picking up children somewhat near impossible.
This is why when engineering firm AECOM recently introduced a trial of term-time contracts - which will allow parents or grandparents to spend all 12 weeks of the school holidays caring for their children while receiving a monthly pro-rata salary - I rejoiced.
The company is doing it because they realise that a) they're losing out on a huge talent pool of female engineers, who all too often opt out of the industry after finding the hours too inflexible for family life; and b) because the leaders understand the difficulties modern parents face when it comes to this unavoidable aspect of most people's lives.
And while I believe that all workplaces would do well to follow AECOM's suit, I also think there are other ways we can make sure to include everyone, parents or not, when it comes to workplace reform,
Arrangements such as:
- Giving people the ability to work flexibly (i.e. from home more, or outside of standard business hours).
- Allowing employees to purchase leave for school holidays (or just leave in general).
- Allowing employees to work a compressed week, so working five days in four, for example
will not only make workers' lives easier, but will also inspire loyalty.
But during school holidays, there is no infrastructure in place to help people through that period, which means that already overworked parents are forced to save up their annual leave (which at best covers just over a third of the 12-weeks of school holidays) and take it off during the summer holidays year in, year out.
Companies need to recognise that being a progressive and flexible employer who understands the challenges parents face and the pressure they're constantly under is attractive to top talent.
The ABS reports that three-quarters of people aged 25 to 45 have school-aged children. This age group is also the biggest working group in Australia, and includes employees from all positions in the work hierarchy.
So employers, my suggestion is this: don't be afraid to give employees choice, most of all parents. You'll be surprised what you get back - and how little you'll actually lose.
Natalie Goldman, CEO of FlexCareers, is an expert with some 20 years' experience in gender diversity and flexible working.