(Photo by FatCamera/iStock by Getty Images)

“Ten years ago, you'd never say you were stressed or anxious. You just wouldn't even use those words in the workplace with your manager. Today, we talk about that. And I think once we opened that door, employees have had the expectation that we will also help them with that,” said Maribeth Bearfield, chief HR officer at global education and care provider Bright Horizons.

This, she said, is a defining moment for the HR profession in their relationship with employees. “We are their village, we are the ones they are turning to now for support. We’ve really got to lean in, to provide the support that all of our employees need.”

At From Day One’s August virtual conference, “Learning From a Crisis About What Working Parents Need,” Bearfield gave a presentation on the importance of care options in helping workers thrive as individuals, professionals, and parents.

According to the Center for American Progress, 2 million parents suffer job disruptions due to lack of child care–and that was before Covid-19. Since then, 2.5 million women have left the workforce during the pandemic, often because of family care obligations. And this from the most recent Bright Horizons Modern Family Index, published in 2021: 75% of employed mothers and fathers report increased child care responsibilities because of pandemic effects.

Maribeth Bearfield, chief HR officer for Bright Horizons (Photo courtesy of Bright Horizons)

Bearfield believes lack of family care support is a threat to workforce efficiency. Parents are overwhelmed with responsibilities in the workplace and in the home, and that carries a heavy mental burden. According to the Bright Horizons report, parents worry about the mental toll that isolation and lack of structure is taking on their children, the loss of developmental opportunities, and the consequences of interrupted schooling and social interactions.

Employers have a vested interest in mitigating this stress, Bearfield said, and urged companies to consider the return on investment of making care options easily available. “If people could come to work and not have to worry about their children, actually have their children really close to them, they would work so differently.”

There are segments of the workforce who can do their work from home, while others have to be on site, which makes it difficult to deliver equity in benefits. Parity is an issue Bright Horizons has had to confront in its own organization, just like the businesses it supports. “HR 101 was always, ‘Treat everyone consistently,’” Bearfield said. “Now we have different populations, so we really are beginning to think more innovatively and listen to our teachers for ways we can provide different kinds of work situations for them.”

Bearfield said Bright Horizons has pivoted child care delivery in new ways for its corporate partners. Some wanted to keep their on-site child care centers open even though all employees were remote, some wanted help finding centers closer to workers’ homes, others saw a boom in demand for back-up care. “Whether in the office or whether at home, they need your support,” she said.

“As HR professionals, it's our opportunity to really listen. And I think that is the first thing I would say is, really listen to the needs of your employees.” This is especially important, she said, in a job market in which workers are actively seeking an environment that supports them as professionals and as parents. Bright Horizons, which also provides services like elder care, college coaching, and special needs support, is on a mission to help working families come to work in many ways, Bearfield said.

“What's happened over the past 18 months is companies have realized that supporting all employees–and primarily right now working parents–is just paramount to their success,” she said, and closed with this: “I would ask each of you to think about the villages that you support, and what you're doing to really help all employees with the different needs that they have, especially working parents.”

Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partner who sponsored this thought-leadership spotlight, Bright Horizons.

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in Richmond, Va.