Challenges with Childcare

Sep 29, 2023

I’m not just writing this article because I’ve had a sick child home every day this week (although I have!). It has, however, certainly highlighted the issue for me personally in light of the impending crises we are facing this coming weekend.

If you haven’t seen the news recently, you may be unaware that the emergency funding provided for childcare during the pandemic runs out this coming Saturday.

Why is this such a critical issue?  

As many as 70,000 childcare providers may be forced to close as this federal aid ends, which would eliminate care for nearly 3.2 million children (CNBC).

Hundreds of thousands of families will be left without care, impacting their ability to continue working and thereby supporting their families.

Many experts are raising the alarm that as a country, we are underestimating the impact of childcare challenges on our economy. The U.S. is already the only industrialized nation to not already have a paid family medical leave program.  

Challenges with childcare have already increased in significant ways. Many of us have experienced these challenges, but possibly not formally recognized them.

Here are just a few I brainstormed as part of an engagement survey report I was writing for one of our customers:  

  • Hours of Operation: Many childcare facilities and daycares have had to shorten their hours due to staffing challenges. (My children’s school used to stay open until 7pm, now it closes at 5:30pm). 
  • After-School Programs Waitlisted: Many public-school aftercare programs are also struggling with staffing, leading to long waitlists for children to be eligible to stay after. For parents who work, if they can’t work from home, their young children are likely to return home to empty houses.
  • Alternative Care Options: Already there are not enough people to staff childcare facilities; finding care when a child is sick, or the school is closed is nearly impossible. Grandparents are less available because of their own health challenges or proximity due to travel or living in different states.  
  • Sick Child Policies: Since the pandemic many schools have changed their protocols and policies for sick children and in some cases requiring doctors' note to return back to school after illness. Not only do you have to keep a child home sick, but you also have to get to the doctor before they can return to school. (Getting doctor appointments can also be a challenge and let’s not even dive into the costs of healthcare being a prohibitive factor).  
  • Child Abuse by Providers: The rates of child abuse by childcare providers are still alarmingly high. I myself experienced the trauma of discovering our nanny had been physically and verbally abusing my son at three years old. In the worst cases, children are even found dead in the care of a childcare provider. Just recently, a local childcare facility in one of the most financially affluent areas of St. Louis was reported for getting physical with a two-year-old child. These situations are extremely stressful and difficult to navigate, making it even harder to leave children in the care of others. 

I am sure I am missing others, but I think this highlights the challenges anyone with children is navigating in the world today.

For those who can’t afford childcare, who have to choose between food and having care for their children, when this money runs out, they will have an impossible choice to make.  

Many experts are arguing over whether childcare is a personal issue or an economic issue, I’d like to attack the challenge through a neuroscience and performance lens.

We know from neuroscience that when our bodies are experiencing fear or a threat to our safety, our sympathetic (fight/flight) or dorsal vagal (freeze) nervous system is activated. Research has shown being in this state long term negatively impacts our health, performance, and relationships.   

Dealing with childcare challenges, navigating who will pick up and stay with a sick child, who will care for a child after school, and what happens when you can’t afford to pay for it all, are wreaking havoc on parents everywhere.

I’ve talked to dozens of parents who are in an almost constant state of survival trying to navigate these challenges and balance workplace expectations.

While parents are focused on these challenges, they are in a flight/fight mode and therefore, not performing at their best. The results we see in our businesses will be one of the consequences.  

Certainly, flexibility, paid time off, and understanding workplaces help to alleviate some of the stress and challenges. However, the underlying stress of figuring it all out remains constant as they are trying to work and live their lives. Especially for those who don’t make enough money to pay for childcare.  

If you are business leader right now, do you know what it costs to have childcare?  

In the U.S., the average cost is $14,760 per year!  

Let’s use Missouri instead (we tend to be on the lower end) with an average cost being about $9,500 per child.  

Just think about that – if you have two children, that’s $20,000 per year.

(And that is the average. I can tell you my childcare costs are substantially higher.)  

Now let’s combine the stress of figuring out care for our kids with the cost of that care and how to make enough money to pay all the bills.  It’s no wonder people are getting sicker, burning out more often, and struggling just to survive. Throw in the risk of abuse… 

We also need to recognize that 90% of all paid childcare providers are women.

The staffing challenges are tied directly to particularly low wages for those who pursue this line of work. If they were paid fairly (or at least high enough to cover their own childcare costs), we’d likely be able to staff these positions more readily.   

All of this coupled together demonstrates the extraordinarily high costs and impact of not better addressing the childcare challenges. We need those who care for children to be paid well and held to high standards of care.  

Likewise, if workplaces truly want the best out of their employees, to be operating at optimal performance and producing great results for the business, they need to address childcare.  

Let’s also highlight and celebrate the workplaces who are doing just that! Workplaces like Patagonia, Marriott, and Northern Trust all provide on-site childcare.

Some workplaces, like Tyson Foods, are adding on-site childcare facilities to bring people back to their offices, alleviating one of the biggest challenges of returning to the office for their employees.  

Other ways employers can address this challenge are: 

  • Offering Childcare Subsidies or financial support 
  • Offer Back-up Care Support 
  • Provide After School and Summer Camp Support 
  • Linking with local facilities  

We know people need to be in a balanced nervous system state for optimal performance. Extended periods of stress operating in a fight/flight/freeze response will undoubtedly have significant consequences on people's ability to perform at work.

The effects of this stress will continue to build over time and this will ultimately lead to burnout (if it hasn't already!)

Recognizing this impact highlights that if we care about people's performance at work, we must also care about their stress levels being impacted by childcare challenges.

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