Due to national lockdowns amid a global pandemic, the majority of us have spent the past year inside our homes.

With government restrictions leading to country-wide school and office closures, parents were forced to homeschool their children and spend their days juggling work commitments and childcare.

Whilst maintaining a work-life balance has proved to be a real challenge for most parents, working from home and having the entire family under one roof provided a rare opportunity for many to spend extra time with their loved ones.

As lockdown restrictions slowly lift and the kids return to school, employees are understandably experiencing mixed emotions at the prospect of returning to the office, and the potential to miss being there when the children return from school.

Employees Missing Loved Ones

Whilst all employees may harbour mixed emotions about no longer working alongside their loved ones, Love Energy Savings’ new research, which surveyed 1,000 UK employees, reveals that parents are the most likely to bear the emotional brunt of returning to the office.

This research found that nearly half of parents (46%) said that they worry about missing key moments in their child’s development when they return to their normal routine post-lockdown.

A further one-third (30%) of parents said that they worry they’ll lose a degree of closeness with their child when they return to their normal routine post-lockdown.

Prior to COVID-19, many parents accepted that they would miss out on certain milestones in their children’s development because society championed the normal 9-5 and a great number of employers proved in-flexible with working hours. 

However, the pandemic has demonstrated to employers that productivity actually increases amongst remote workers. A study conducted by Finder reported that two-thirds of employers noticed a productivity increase in remote workers when compared to in-office employees

These stats make the old rhetoric around rigid work routines outdated and in the case of working parents with young children, potentially discriminatory. 

Moreover, spending so much time with their children over the last year has made many parents notice how much they normally miss out on.

This ranges from the little things like their child’s new favourite word or quirky habit, right the way through to more monumental moments, like their first step or word. 

Education Anxiety

The homeschooling that took place during lockdown gave parents a chance to be more hands on with their kids’ education (whether they liked it or not). 

While many may have been reluctant to do so, this one-to-one learning allowed parents to build a stronger bond with their children and engage with them in ways they may not have been able to pre-pandemic – excluding helping them with homework.

A review of best practice in parental engagement released by the government, suggests that one-on-one time spent between parent and child improves their relationship by 19%. Moreover, 78% of parents who have this one-on-one interaction have a better understanding of their children and tend to see less conflict in the home.

Now that the young ones have returned to school and parents are returning to the office, mums and dads are having to let go of this extra means of bonding; proving to be a source of anxiety for many.

Our research highlights that over one-quarter (26%) of parents are worried that they won’t be able to positively influence their child’s education when they return to their normal routine post-lockdown. With just under a third of dads (28%) being more worried about this than mums! 

In previous years, this anxiety may have been labelled a symptom of ‘helicopter parenting.’ However, given the context of this research, it seems likely that this is closely connected to the fear of losing that parent-child closeness. 

This is all the more understandable, since quality time felt so hard to come by with work commitments and other aspects of parents’ busy lives pre-pandemic. 

A study conducted by Study Finds and released in January 2020 – just before the COVID-19 outbreak in the UK, reported that the average parent typically spent just 5 hours face-to-face with their children per week and that’s including weekends!

Another pre-pandemic survey released by The Independent in 2019 estimated that British parents spent less than 30 minutes of quality time a day with their kids!

So, despite homeschooling being a grueling task for many, it did provide parents and children with some extra, possibly long-overdue bonding time. A factor parents fear they will miss out on once they return to the office. 

This decrease in quality time can cause parents to feel detached from their offspring and this could then begin to negatively impact their mental health and their productivity at work..

Separation Anxiety and the Mental Health Implications

61% of parents said that they’ll miss seeing their child as often once they return to their normal post-lockdown routine.

Separation anxiety is a common phenomenon amongst parents, particularly those with younger children.

Returning to work and being separated from children can be particularly overwhelming for some parents. This stress can then lead to, or exacerbate a number of mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. 

1 in 8 parents admitted to being worried about their mental health suffering when their child returns to their normal post-lockdown routine, with more fathers saying that they’re worried about this in comparison to mothers (1 in 7 men compared to 1 in 10 women).

These findings highlight the fact that contrary to stereotypical gender assumptions, fathers worry just as much as mothers about being separated from their children.

Research into the cause of separation anxiety amongst mothers and fathers has suggested that the issue can be triggered by a fear of losing control over what children are doing and exposed to whilst away from parents’ watchful eye

During lockdown, parents spent just about every waking moment with their children, allowing them to monitor and manage everything from their meals to their learning.

Once parents return to their jobs, they’ll lose this sense of control and closeness to their kids.

In addition to worrying about their own mental health, parents are concerned about the mental impact returning to a normal routine could have on their children.

1 in 6 parents admitted to being worried that their child’s mental health will suffer when they return to their normal routine post-lockdown.

Some Much Needed Space

Whilst parents may be feeling understandably anxious about the decreased time spent with their loved ones, many also look forward to some much-needed respite, after a year spent juggling home-schooling and remote working. 

A little breathing space away from the kids seems to be in high demand, with 57% of parents expressing the need for space from their children after having worked from home during the pandemic.

Additionally, a whopping 96% of parents believe it will be good for their children to begin interacting with a wider pool of people again.

This has been a huge cause of anxiety on its own, with many parents worrying about the lack of interaction their child has had with those their own age over the lockdown periods.

The good news is children are resilient and their reduced interactions with children their own age should not be an additional source of worry or concern. As explained by Dr. Jack Shonkoff, M.D., a pediatrician and early-childhood development expert at Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child:

“Even though this is unusual, most kids will come out of this fine because we’re biologically wired to adapt.” 

So, parents can have peace of mind in knowing that their children should be able to develop and flourish to their full potential despite the impacts of COVID-19 lockdowns.

Mums and dads can also find satisfaction in knowing that once they return to the office, much like their children, they’ll finally be able to interact with others who are on the same wavelength.

Surely, it will be a relief to be able to speak about topics other than Joe Wicks and Peppa Pig!

How Employers Can Ease the Transition Back to the Office

With so many parents feeling anxious about leaving their children to return to the office, it’s essential that employers implement measures to help ease staff’s worries.

After all, productivity is bound to take a hit if employees are sat at their desks worrying about their kids.

Research has highlighted that in the past, companies have not been sensitive to the difficulties faced by working parents.

A study conducted by Working Families in October 2020, found that 1 in 5 (or 2.6 million!) working parents in the UK felt that they had been treated less fairly at work because of their childcare responsibilities since the onset of COVID-19.

If employers are to succeed in creating and maintaining an effective workforce, they simply cannot overlook or discriminate against parents. They must become family-friendly.

In order to do this, companies should first of all, acknowledge the pressures faced by parents. HR professionals, CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel Development) suggest that businesses should send an empathetic and supportive message from the top, to show that they take employee’s family commitments seriously.

They state on their website:

“It is important that senior leaders let working parents know that they understand the challenges they are facing and are empathetic and supportive.

“This will help to make working parents feel valued and will also give line managers greater confidence in supporting their individual team members.”

Employers can also help to protect the mental health of working parents by conducting frequent check-ins to ensure that they are coping and able to balance their work life with their home life. 

Bosses should provide staff with information on services that they can access for mental health support if they are struggling. Some examples of which include organisations Mind and Remploy

Employers should also be open to staff taking impromptu time off when necessary. This promotes a mutual respect and trust between employee and employer, which will pay dividends for any business in both staff loyalty and work ethic.

Finally, businesses should ensure that they are open to compromise. Flexible hours, remote working and taking important personal phone calls at work should no longer be frowned upon.

If there’s one thing that the pandemic has taught us, it’s that it is indeed possible to achieve a work-life balance. However, this requires flexibility and understanding from employers.

At the end of the day, employees have outside commitments that are just as important as their jobs, if not more important when it comes to their children. Staff shouldn’t be expected to prioritise work over their families.

The pandemic has forced us to acknowledge that strict, regimented attitudes towards working are archaic. Businesses must move with the times and understand that work is only one aspect of people’s lives, not the central focus.  

Staff should be able to prioritise their families without being worried about being penalised or judged. After all, everyone’s well-being and home life matters, regardless of whether they’re an employer or an employee.

By Lisa Baker, Senior Editor

Senior Editor Lisa Baker is the owner of Need to See it Publishing Group, providing contract news for business and news sites across the UK. Lisa is an experienced HR writer and commentator, editing HR publications for more than 5 years.