(Photo by FG Trade/iStock by Getty Images)

Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, more than 3.5 million working moms have left the workplace, a third of them due to child-care issues. Those stark facts are a bold-face, underlined statement that companies in search of talent have to change the way they deal with parents in the workplace.

That is the message of Shauna Cour, VP of employer sales at Ovia Health, a women’s and family health benefit that has supported 17 million family journeys from preconception through thriving as a working parent. The company has created a large health care database while working with companies to determine what parents in the workforce really want and need in order to thrive at home and work.

Cour, speaking at From Day One’s January conference in Seattle, outlined the results of a recent survey of working women aged 26 to 40, most of them moms, from entry level to the C-suite level. They represent employees at companies large and small. “Relish the good news in this data, because there isn’t a lot of it,” she said. The positives include:

•Those who felt that they were in a good workplace for new parents are more likely to be in that job a year after giving birth.

•45% said they came back to work to advance their career.

•35% said they came back because they liked their job.

•84% reported receiving some amount of paid leave for a new child, with the average being nine weeks.

Most people leave their jobs now because they’re dissatisfied with their benefits. “It used to be because of compensation,” said Cour. “Now, culture matters.”

The top benefit of interest to the survey’s respondents was paid parental leave. Other benefits of interest were flexible schedules, hybrid work arrangements, and child care support. Planning programs for the prenatal phase and return to work are benefits with a small price tag and a potentially big impact. Mental health and coaching programs, along with lactation rooms, were also high on a list of some 40 factors respondents rated.

Cour says companies need to consider what they can do in each of four areas if they are serious about retaining staff who are parents or are planning to become parents. Her advice:

Be generous with parental leave: “Ensure it is comprehensive. Companies can save 50% by offering paid leave vs. losing an employee. Cour showed the math: “So if they get three months paid leave, we’re looking at $18,000. They then take FMLA leave, which is another $18,000 that it will cost the employer to backfill to the position, plus work-productivity costs.” $36,000 seems like a lot to pay for one person’s leave, but using established metrics, it would cost 1.5 to 2 times the annual salary to refill that position. And in this hiring environment, it’s more likely 2.5 to 3 times the annual salary. More leave is a much cheaper tradeoff, she said.

Cour giving her presentation in Seattle (Photo by David Ryder)

Cour recommends that all benefits, not just those around family leave, be talked about more than just once a year. “Most times, it’s just at open enrollment. But this is complex and difficult.” Make it more frequent and help staff understand the language. One idea is to do a monthly spotlight on what is available. Listen to what your employees are saying in ERGs and other work-community groups. “Give them a seat at the table. Get in front of them and ask what they need that we don’t have.”

Embrace flexible schedules: It isn’t always feasible to have a flexible schedule or a hybrid or remote-work option. Cour looks at nursing as an example. “You can’t be remote, and you can’t give them an option to pick their shifts every week. But you could do that once a month. Or you could provide more ten- and 12-hour shifts so that they have an extra day off. Think again about the things you think are not feasible, she recommended.

Another option is to offer a gradual return to work. “Can you get them back at 75% the first month? It may seem small, but if you’ve been the beneficiary of these types of programs, they’re huge for people. It shows you care.”

Destigmatize parenting: “People now are more aware of the level of chaos in everyone’s lives, and they acknowledge and talk about it,” she said. The days of keeping work and home life separate are probably over for good, so take a good look at the trade-offs parents are making to succeed at work.

Shauna Cour, VP of employer sales at Ovia Health (Photo courtesy of Ovia Health)

Cour recommends that employers look for policies that are not inclusive of families the way they exist today. For example, if you provide infertility benefits as written through an insurance carrier, they may not be of use to many of your employees. For example, they often specify they are not for those medically incapable of becoming pregnant, only for those who can become pregnant. “If you are a single mom, a single dad, or a same-sex couple, you may not be able to use this,” said Cour.

Celebrate families: “Know the names of spouses and children. It is the first conversation we have here at Ovia. I talk about my kids and ask them to talk about theirs. These are the three human beings that mean the most to me, so if I have a manager who doesn’t know my kids’ names, that is a red flag to me.”

Most days, she concluded, she wants to celebrate her family, and most employees probably want to celebrate theirs, too. Creating an environment where your people know that you can celebrate and commiserate the ups and downs of parenthood together, and know that your company understands, is worth gold in today’s employee marketplace.

Lisa Jaffe is a freelance writer who lives in Seattle with her son and a very needy rescue dog named Ellie Bee. She enjoys reading, long walks on the beach, and trying to get better at ceramics.