The countdown is on towards the summer school holidays – a time many working parents approach with a mix of anticipation and trepidation.
School holidays 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.
The holiday care jigsaw
Lengthy school holidays are an antiquated relic of the Victorian era. They were a necessity for the agricultural economy of the 19th century when schools needed to break for long periods so children could toil in the fields. While the dates and lengths of school holidays around the world differ, a long summer holiday is still a feature in most school systems.
In England, local education authority schools must open for at least 380 sessions (190 days) during a school year. In the US, the academic year typically has around 180 school teaching days, as required by most states. In Australia, school lasts approximately 200 days divided into four terms, as do the New Zealand and Singaporean systems. Minus weekends, all these systems still require children to be on holiday for at least 60 week days a year.
Many parents piece together a jigsaw of childcare, using a mix of formal and informal (complementary) childcare across a week. Such arrangements tend not to be discussed beyond the level of the household. As a consequence, little is known academically, in workplaces or publicly about how working parents manage the juggle.
Formal childcare during school holidays can include services delivered through state, market or voluntary institutions such as creches, childminders, sports clubs, churches or private holiday programmes. It is worth noting that workplace childcare for school aged children is rare, especially in the private sector, and New Zealand and Australia are no exception. Even less is known about the use of informal childcare options, such as relying on friends and relatives to take care of children through arrangements such as play dates, unpaid babysitting, outings with grandparents, or leaving older children home alone.
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 1,100 members and approximately 350 participated in the study.
School holidays clearly create pertinent issues for mothers in the study. Most respondents (90%) have children under the age of 18 living in their household. Just over two-thirds (64%) of respondents said that they experience conflict around managing the school holidays. Further, 60% agreed that the school holidays make it challenging to focus on work and achieve their usual work performance.
Beyond the work performance issues, 68% 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%) thought their organisation provided only limited (or less) support, with only 29% reporting some positive level of support.
In New Zealand, all working employees are legally covered by the Holidays Act (2003), under which employees 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.
We would like to acknowledge the contribution of our co-author Rebecca Armour, the founder of the Corporate Mothers’ Network and a KPMG tax partner.
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.