Blue-chip UK employers try to soothe parental lockdown pain amid fears of burnout

Kirstin Ridley and Iain Withers
·4-min read

By Kirstin Ridley and Iain Withers

LONDON (Reuters) - From unlimited paid time off to laptops for children, some of Britain's blue-chip employers are trying to persuade parent employees juggling jobs and childcare during the pandemic that they have their backs.

A third British lockdown from Jan. 5, that shut schools to most children and confined many workers to their homes, has exacerbated a childcare crisis that unions warn could herald a drain of talent that disproportionately impacts women.

On Wednesday, the government said schools will remain largely closed for at least another six weeks.

Some banks, professional services firms, law firms and insurers are offering staff flexible working arrangements, reduced hours and increased emergency leave alongside benefits such as free counselling and parent buddy schemes.

Law firm Hogan Lovells is offering employee carers an extra five days paid leave since Britain's third lockdown, alongside measures such as free counselling and virtual workstation assessments, put in place last year. Insurance broker Howden is loaning laptops to staff to help with home schooling.

KPMG, a professional services company, says employees in Britain can ask for unlimited paid time off to care for family or friends during the crisis under a Special Leave policy.

"We recognise that this is a very difficult time for most people and want to support them ... and trust that they will not abuse it," says Kevin Hogarth, Chief People Officer at KPMG UK.

Similar to peer PwC's COVID-19 "Time Off for Dependants" code, the policy is designed to help those struggling to balance work and caring duties within the working week, rather than for extended paid leave. There is no prescribed limit on its use but take-up has been low.

Wall Street investment bank Goldman Sachs has allowed staff in Britain to take 10 days paid leave per dependant; a policy introduced last March and now extended to the first half of 2021 - for those yet to take it.

Other firms are allowing carers to reduce working hours. Insurer Aviva, Lloyds Bank and Nationwide bank have paid all workers in full since last March even if the pandemic forces them to change work patterns.

But unions warn that enabling staff to manage workloads and stress levels when schools close and childcare options vanish hinges as much on empathetic managers as on corporate policies.

"What we're seeing is that it's impossible for some people to look after their children and work," said Dominic Hook, national officer at Unite, one of Britain's biggest unions.

"Some have been asked to take holidays. One person's team leader even suggested taking a sabbatical... Women are worse affected as they sadly bear the brunt of childcare."


Many firms say managers will offer flexible and pragmatic working arrangements that could allow staff to avoid breakfast or lunchtime meetings so they can feed and set up children for remote schooling - and catch up with work at night or weekends.

But some working parents fret about burnout, saying workloads are too heavy to allow flexibility. Others struggle to maintain working hours when juggling toddlers or home schooling and worry the pandemic is putting career prospects at risk.

"My firm offers flexible working," sighs one London lawyer and single mother, who declined to be named. "But how can I take time out if there is no-one to cover my work?

"I see-saw between thinking I can make it to thinking that I really cannot sustain this career anymore, as I just do not have enough hours in the day to deal with everything that needs to be done for clients and family."

Insurer Zurich this month offered parent employees two weeks extra paid leave. Free antibody tests for all 4,500 British staff and their partners and an emergency loan of up to 750 pounds ($1,029) per person, among other measures, were announced last year.

For claimants in Britain, Zurich is also offering five, free counselling sessions from this month. Policyholders are not obliged to disclose the result of any clinical consultations.

($1 = 0.7289 pounds)

(Additional reporting by Carolyn Cohn and Lawrence White; Editing by Nick Macfie)