In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, workplaces remain in the spotlight, with employees demanding significant shifts in the way we do business. The success of four-day work-week trials, the sweeping shuttering of offices across some of the world’s most significant economic hubs and the boom in the adoption of digital nomad lifestyles seeing governments create new visa types – how we work has changed forever.
This month, as we celebrate UNICEF’s Parenting Month and the fifth Asia-Pacific United Nations Responsible Business and Human Rights Forum, we shine a light on opportunities for business in the East Asia and Pacific region to adopt family-friendly policies that support the mental health and wellbeing of parents and children.
The case for investment
Investing in family-friendly policies benefits families, businesses and economies. These policies help to address the needs of parents and families for adequate time, resources, and services to care for children, while fulfilling their work responsibilities and improving their skills and productivity. Family-friendly policies also support women’s empowerment through promoting shared responsibility between parents as highlighted in UNICEF’s new Family-Friendly Policies in East Asia and the Pacific: An investment opportunity for the public and private sectors.
Yet for too many parents, especially female caregivers who carry the bulk of childcare responsibilities, policies such as paid parental leave, breastfeeding breaks, childcare and employee assistance programmes are not a reality.
For many working women, a lack of adequate family-friendly policies creates the double burden of childcare responsibilities combined with balancing their professional commitments. This became especially visible during the pandemic when millions of women, struggling to juggle these dual stresses of professional work and increased responsibilities of childcare, left the workforce.
Family-friendly policies facilitate women’s access to paid work by both redistributing care work – in particular, by engaging the State and the private sector – and supporting women’s caregiving responsibilities to ensure that these are compatible with their participation in the workforce.
Start from the beginning
From the earliest moments of a child’s life, family-friendly policies can support in providing essential support for parents as well as children. Protections for pregnant women, including job security and support for basic social protection are essential. All workers should receive a salary sufficient to cover their family’s basic needs, including nutrition, education and healthcare and, when needed, subsidies and benefits should be provided for workers’ access to health, unemployment and disability insurance. This should include workers in the informal sector as well.
Without these, parents risk not being able to properly bond with their babies in the first critical 1,000 days of life – a time, evidence tells us, when the combination of the right nourishment, a loving environment and stimulating care can strengthen a baby’s developing brain and give them the very best start in life. As highlighted in UNICEF’s Family-Friendly Policies Handbook for Business, “the potential constructive impacts of family-friendly policies are hugely significant, from reducing child mortality and low birthweight, to decreasing instances of child abuse, increasing rates of breastfeeding and immunization, and enhancing children’s cognitive development and school performance”.
Providing paid time off for new parents allows them to bond with their newborns and adjust to their new family dynamics. When parents can be emotionally available and provide essential care and support to their babies, it helps in strengthening the parent-child bond and relationship.
Family-friendly policies can provide essential support to parents to provide the best possible care and support to their babies in the first critical 1,000 days of life and give them the very best start in life
This means business
Businesses can also offer on-site childcare facilities, and subsidies for (often extremely expensive) private childcare services, or resources and referral programs help to alleviate the stress and financial burden of finding quality childcare. Access to trusted and affordable childcare can help parents ensure their children's safety and well-being, allowing them to properly focus on their work. Importantly, affordable quality childcare helps to provide women, who often bear the brunt of domestic and care responsibilities, the opportunity to remain in the workforce should they choose to, contributing to their economic empowerment.
Flexible work schedules, such as telecommuting, part-time work, or compressed workweeks, allow parents to have more control over their time and balance work commitments with their parenting responsibilities. This flexibility helps parents to be more present and involved in their children's lives. Being able to do school drop-offs, make healthcare appointments or help with homework are moments that strengthen family bonds at any time during a child’s life.
Whether online or in-person, a positive and supportive workplace culture that values work-life balance and understands the challenges of parenting is essential. When parents feel supported, they experience lower stress levels, allowing them to be better parents. In the same vein, employee assistance programmes can provide resources, such as counseling, parenting workshops and educational materials to help employees navigate the most important job in the world – parenting.
Walking the talk
UNICEF is committed to walking the talk, and has recently updated its own Procedure on Family and Parental Leave, which aims to be unified and inclusive, ensuring that staff members who have become parents while in UNICEF’s service have sufficient time to spend with their families and fulfil their parental responsibilities, as well as to foster gender parity and equal career opportunities. The procedure compliments existing policies on special leave, breastfeeding and flexible working arrangements.
As we reflect on this Parenting Month’s focus on mental health, we can understand more clearly that not only do family-friendly policies pay off in healthier, happier and better-educated children by giving them the very best start in life, they also foster greater gender equality. When businesses invest in family-friendly policies and programmes, and go from commitment to action, everyone benefits.
 Women Work: UNICEF’s approach to women’s paid and unpaid work, can be accessed here