School disruptions: Parents who aren’t at work — even when they are

Results from the Unum Group employer survey, September 21, 2020
Mom with child at computer

According to our recent employer survey, nearly every business (93%) has at least some employees with school-aged children. That’s why nearly nine in ten (87%) employers told us they thought a modified back-to-school schedule would be challenging for their employees.

And when it’s tough going for workers, the same goes for businesses. More than three-quarters (78%) of employers expected school-schedule disruptions to create challenges for the whole organization.

78% say, "Somewhat or very challenging".

How challenging do you feel a modified back-to-school schedule will be for your organization as a whole?

Employers are most worried about their employees’ ability to remain productive and focused as they juggle work and parenting responsibilities during the school day. They’re also concerned about what happens when employees need more leave to supervise their school-aged children.

When asked to list the top three impacts they expect for their organizations, almost half (46%) included the need to keep allowing employees to work from home. Half or more listed increased leave requests — and the resulting need to shift workload to other employees.

Please select the top three areas in which you anticipate your organization will feel the biggest impact from a modified back-to-school schedule. 

Percent listing as a Top 3 concern

icon at the computer


Employee productivity/focus

icon requests


Increase in leave requests

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Need to shift workload to other employees due to leave

icon mental health


Employee mental health

icon work from home


Need to allow continued working from home

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Maintaining employee engagement / morale

According to Unum Group’s Ellen McCann, Assistant Vice President, Legal Counsel, Unum's Employment Law Group, “Employers are right to be concerned about a coming wave of leave requests — as well as an additional layer of complexity and compliance risk.”

Enacted in April 2020, the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFCRA) required employers with fewer than 500 employees to provide some paid leave and/or sick time to employees whose children don’t have the option to attend in-person classes. A federal district court ruling in New York in August threw uncertainty to these requirements, and on September 11, 2020, the Department of Labor released updated guidance. In the meantime, many cities and states have implemented their own requirements for providing emergency leave.

More and more companies are turning to outsourced leave management to keep leave from eating up their HR resources. Companies anticipating a wave of autumn leave requests might start looking to outsource leave management sooner than they might have been planning.

Encouraging artistic effort to child

To help reduce the need for leave and support employees as they balance work and school this fall, more than half of employers (57%) said they’re planning to offer some specific accommodations. The most frequently mentioned include flexible work schedules to allow for homeschooling or schoolwork assistance/supervision (76%), full-time work-from-home arrangements (58%) and reduced work hours (48%).

What accommodations do you plan to offer for employees who will be juggling work and a modified back-to-school schedule?

See data associated with this image. Figure 1. Source: Unum employer survey, August 2020.

Yet despite these accommodations, employers can expect to see spiking mental health issues as the pandemic continues to disrupt lives well into the fall. Learn how employers are planning for the coming crisis.

Up next

Explore the report

About the survey

We surveyed 409 employers from August 12 to August 20, 2020, with roughly 100 responses coming from employers in each of four employee-size categories: 1 to 99, 100 to 499, 500 to 1,999 and 2,000+. Respondents were limited to persons involved in employee benefits decision-making or administration at U.S.-based organizations representing a wide variety of industries.

Figure 1: What accommodations do you plan to offer?

Q: Now thinking about benefits enrollment, what method(s) is your organization planning to use this year for employees to select their medical and nonmedical benefits? What method(s) of enrollment did your organization use last year for employees to select their medical and non-medical benefits? [Back to figure]
Flexible work schedules to allow for homeschooling or schoolwork 76%
Full-time work-from-home arrangement 58%
Reduced work hours 48%

Additional resources

  • Article:
    How to help employees thrive in challenging times

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