The summer school holidays are a time many working parents approach with a mix of anticipation and trepidation.
They are important for children as they offer a break from the routine and demands of school. They also give families a chance to spend time together doing things they enjoy.
However, the amount of leave employees get doesn't match school holidays and for working parents the summer school break can be challenging, stressful and expensive.
We know very little about how working families juggle the conflicting demands during the holiday period, but our research aims to better understand the working parents' conundrum.
Guilt and performance
Our research explores the responses to school holidays by corporate mothers based in New Zealand. We examined how holidays present a form of conflict for working mothers and the mothers' perceptions of organisational support around managing the holiday period.
The research was conducted as part of a larger study with members of the Corporate Mothers Network which was established in 2013 as an Auckland-based networking platform for corporate women who are balancing busy family commitments with a career. The network recognises that one of the keys to success in business is relationships, so it was designed to provide a forum to hear from inspirational people, facilitate business relationships and support mothers in their careers. The network has 1100 members and approximately 350 took part in the study.
School holidays clearly create pertinent issues for mothers in the study. Most respondents (90 per cent) have children under the age of 18 living in their household. Just under two-thirds (64 per cent) of respondents said they experience conflict around managing the school holidays. Further, 60 per cent agreed that the school holidays make it challenging to focus on work and achieve their usual work performance.
Beyond the work performance issues, 68 per cent said they don't feel like a good parent during the school holidays. This is a major concern.
Minding the gap
The burden tends to fall to families themselves to manage holiday arrangements. In our study, we found the majority of respondents (71 per cent) thought their organisation provided only limited (or less) support, with only 29 per cent reporting some positive level of support.
In New Zealand, all working employees are legally covered by the Holidays Act (2003), under which they are entitled to at least four weeks of paid annual holidays. However, primary and secondary school aged children are on school holidays for at least 12 weeks each year. This equates to around a quarter of the year.
The silence about how working parents manage school holidays remains surprising. Until we have a greater shared understanding of the ways working parents manage the holidays in terms of child care provisions, use of leave, cost of services, guilt at not being there for children, and impact on their work performance, the holidays will remain the elephant in the room - large and looming but often ignored until the stampede.
Potential solutions to alleviate the difficult holiday juggle could include organisations offering working parents enhanced flexibility during the school holiday weeks. They could also consider providing holiday childcare or programme subsidies built into remuneration options, workplace school holiday programmes for employees' children, and giving staff the ability to work remotely and/or part-time during holiday weeks.
Organisations could also show care where possible in scheduling work across the year, for example by not offering coveted leadership development initiatives or launching major new products during school holiday weeks.
If line managers had regular conversations with employees about school holidays to acknowledge that they are aware of the additional pressures, that would be a good start.