According to a survey of 50,000 workers, over 70% of working mothers who asked their employers to furlough them because schools had closed were turned down, and 90% experienced an increase in their anxiety and stress levels during this lockdown.

Responses to the survey paint a grim picture. Parents have always had to 'juggle' the competing demands of work and home, but usually the pinch points are concentrated around drop off and pick up times and school holidays. Now, huge numbers of parents (but particularly women) are under pressure to home school their children alongside doing their normal jobs.

Be pro-active

Even if your staff are working from home, don't assume that they're coping just because they haven't complained or haven't asked to reduce their hours. If you haven't already done so, ask anyone who is combining childcare during their usual working hours to contact you so that you can discuss their specific situation. Then ask them how they are coping and find out what you can do to help. Do they need a temporary reduction in hours or to change when they work? Even if they say they don't, find out how realistic it is for them to sandwich work in after the kids have gone to bed etc.

Most adults (even those that are used to the type of engrained sleep deprivation that comes with having young children) need to have a certain amount of sleep to be able to adequately perform. If your staff are regularly burning the candle at both ends you shouldn't be surprised if their efficiency takes a nose dive or they start to make uncharacteristic mistakes. It's far better to be realistic about what they can achieve.

Varying hours or when they work

Employees have a right to request flexible working once they have worked for you for 26 weeks. This is a formal process and, unless you agree otherwise, any changes you make will be permanent. Plus, under the statutory scheme, employees can only make a formal request to amend their working hours etc once in any 12 month period. These restrictions may put your staff off asking for changes in their contracts.

It may therefore be sensible to relax your policy and make it clear that you will consider making temporary arrangements to help staff cope during this current lockdown.

Any changes you do agree should be set out in writing.

Furlough

Workers don't have a right to be furloughed. But, there are good reasons for considering furlough even if you've not used the scheme before.

Government guidance 'check which employees you can put on furlough under the CJRS' states that any one who has 'caring responsibilities resulting from coronavirus (COVID-19), such as caring for children who are at home as a result of school and childcare facilities closing, or caring for a vulnerable individual in their household' can be furloughed provided they otherwise are eligible under the scheme.

The CJRS was extended in November and the rules are different from the original and flexible furlough schemes in that you can claim for any employee who was on your PAYE payroll by 23.59 on Friday 30 October 2020 provided you have submitted Real Time Information about them to HMRC by that date. This means that new starters or people who have not previously been furloughed will qualify and there aren't any limits on the total number of people you can furlough this time.

Also, as previously you can furlough;

  • Apprentices (they can continue to train while on furlough)
  • Foreign nationals and employees on all categories of visa
  • Supply teachers
  • Company directors
  • Contractors in the scope of IR35 rules
  • Salaried members of an LLP
  • Office holders

Obviously, if you furlough staff you otherwise need, you'll have to think about how you replace them. Are they other people in the business with the same or transferable skills? If not, how easy is it to recruit? A half way house might be to consider flexible furlough - whereby you agree that the employee will work a certain number of hours each week to deal with the urgent stuff or help new staff to get to grips with the job.

But, if you don't think furloughing them is feasible, explain why. Whilst your staff are unlikely to be happy about the situation, they know that much of this is out of your control and are more likely to accept your rationale if you take the time to explain it to them.

Emergency leave

All employees have the right to take a reasonable amount of time off during working hours in order to 'take action' which is necessary because 'of the unexpected disruption or termination of arrangements for the care of a dependant'. This would cover situations such as where schools have shut down. Time off is unpaid, is for a limited period (usually a few days at most) and certainly wouldn't extend to looking after a child for weeks. It's therefore not likely to be very useful in this situation.

Parental leave

Any employee who has worked for you for a year or more is entitled to take up to 18 weeks leave for each child - limited to four weeks each year. But, it's unpaid and therefore won't be of much use to anyone who can't afford to take it.

Paid leave

You can ask staff to take paid leave to look after their children. However, most workers only receive 5.6 weeks' holiday each year and that will be easily gobbled up if schools remain closed until after half term and possibly up to Easter. Plus, the purpose of paid leave is to provide workers with time for relaxation and to recharge their batteries. Anyone who is home schooling children and coping with everything else this pandemic has thrown at them is unlikely to benefit (from a health and safety perspective) from taking a 'holiday' now.

Mental health

... which leads me on to mental health. Many people, even those who had previously been resilient, are struggling with their mental health. We are largely confined to our homes, the weather's cold and it's dark by 4.30pm. Plus, we can't do the things that many of us rely on to keep us going when things become difficult.

There's not much point in having a policy on mental health or telling staff that their health is important to you, if you don't get the basics right. Treat people with respect, accept they are not invincible and acknowledge their personal difficulties.

Our Coronavirus updates

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TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said the government’s lack of support for working parents was causing huge financial hardship and stress – and hitting low-paid mums and single parents hardest.

“Just like in the first lockdown, mums are shouldering the majority of childcare,” she said. “Tens of thousands of mums have told us they are despairing. It’s neither possible nor sustainable for them to work as normal, while looking after their children and supervising schoolwork.”

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/jan/13/furlough-refused-to-71-of-uk-working-mothers-while-schools-shut-survey