While professional services company Accenture has long been supportive of its working parents, it introduced a new backup childcare program in 2020 to help employees with the challenges precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“When the pandemic hit, our working parents found themselves homeschooling their kids while juggling the demands of remote work,” says Susan Goodyer, the organization’s human resources director in Canada. “With the added concerns about physical and financial health, Accenture realized we needed to do more.”

Before the pandemic, the organization offered care through an external provider, including subsidized access to daycares or in-home childcare. The benefit was also available to cover elder care. In addition, Accenture subsidized two weeks of backup care per year for when regular arrangements fell through.

Read: How can employers support staff with children during pandemic schooling?

Last spring, it created and developed the crisis-care reimbursement program, which allows working parents to find the caregiver of their choice — whether an extended family member or a friend — and receive reimbursement up to $100 a day for up to 30 days.

“We offered this through the spring and summer,” says Goodyer. “Then, with back-to-school season in mind, we reinstituted it again, starting in September — starting the clock again, another 30 days or another $3,000 or reimbursed childcare or elder care from September through December.”

Back it up

Where employers provide backup childcare, it’s typically in place for when regular childcare breaks down — in this case, closures due to the coronavirus.

“Most people, when their childcare centres are closed, their primary backup is a grandparent or a neighbour,” says Nora Spinks, chief executive officer of the Ottawa-based Vanier Institute of the Family. “Grandparents are being isolated, in large part, from their grandchildren, because of the risks associated with COVID and the older populations.”

By the numbers

41% of working parents in the U.S. said they have less job security due to the pandemic and fear being penalized because
of their childcare responsibilities.

42% fear it would be a risk to their employment to take advantage of the benefits their workplaces offer to working parents, with 39% worrying they could be terminated if they do so.

Many parents — 49% of mothers compared to 39% of fathers — aren’t aware of the programs their employers have in place for working parents.

And 41% of mothers said they have to hide their caregiving struggles from their colleagues.

Source: Catalyst survey, September 2020

However, childcare centres, for the most part, have reopened since the early days of the pandemic, she notes in an interview last fall. “In most cases, even when there’s a regional or local upgrade to orange or red, the childcare centres are remaining open. That’s helping, but it’s still not reducing parental anxiety and there’s still a concern that there’s going to need to be isolation at some point.”

Read: Women leaving workforce to care for kids during pandemic: report

With all of this in mind, employers are trying to be as supportive, responsive, reactive and understanding as possible, says Spinks, while maintaining employee performance and productivity. “It’s not an easy situation, but it has highlighted the significance and importance of both childcare and the education system in making it possible for people to participate in the paid labour force.”

Before Accenture introduced its new program, it conducted interviews with employees to find out how they were really doing in the midst of the pandemic, says Goodyer, noting the levels of stress were significant. In addition to adjusting to working from home, parents were faced with the pressures of homeschooling children or, for those with very young children, balancing their needs with work responsibilities.

“We found it was impacting our [employees’] mental health and well-being because they were really struggling with how to make it all work. And then the added stress of not wanting a stranger to come into your home meant that a lot of our typical solutions just weren’t going to work the way they had originally been designed.

Read: Five lessons for employers to apply to the pandemic’s second wave

“Our people were coming to us and telling us they were struggling. . . . It’s understandable, given the high level of stress we’re all experiencing . . . and trying to balance the demands of work and having kids at home was almost getting to be too much for people. So we wanted to look at something to help our parents and, while we’re giving them options around mental-health support, we wanted to figure out what we could do to help our working parents now.”

Staying connected

Accenture’s new program was introduced through a range of digital communications, including regular emails from Goodyer, via the company’s intranet site and during all-employee town halls, which were already a regular staple pre-pandemic.

“We did more during the pandemic, just to start connecting with people, and this would be one of those regular topics for those town halls early in the pandemic time frame,” she says. “Because we wanted to make sure people understood everything that was available — especially for those parents who weren’t used to using our backup program — as the pandemic evolved, we needed to be responsive and so we wanted them also to be aware [of] what was improved. But we essentially used our primary digital channels because that’s what we already do and it was quite simple for us to get the word out.”

Read: Employers focusing on engagement, mental health of remote workers

Since the program’s launch, feedback from employees has been very positive, with a significant number taking advantage of the benefit in the spring and summer, adds Goodyer. Due to this positive response, Accenture rolled it out again in the fall.

“With the concerns of schools and a lot of the unknowns around the virus and the cold and flu season . . . , we want to make sure our parents understand they have a contingency plan already and it doesn’t feel like we’re truly in that crisis mode that we all felt in March. And because this whole pandemic is impacting the mental health and well-being of our people, we’re going to continue to monitor it and determine if we’re going to extend it.”

Jennifer Paterson is the editor of Benefits Canada.