Unsustainable. That sums up the fevered pace at which many working parents have been hustling since the pandemic started. They’re up and working at all hours to meet the demands of their jobs while also assuming full-time roles as caretaker, tutor and camp counselor in the absence of child care and school. For those whose aging parents require help, their days are even more fraught. And they’re doing all of it against the backdrop of a deadly virus and an overnight recession. “Everyone has been running on adrenalin,” said PwC US Chairman Tim Ryan, who himself has six kids, most of whom are school age. “It’s been a Herculean effort [by employees].” But it’s one they’ll have a hard time maintaining come fall if there still aren’t full-time school or child care options. Among parents working from home, over 40% surveyed by Gallup in May said it was a “major challenge” to balance doing their job while helping their kids with school. Despite a US unemployment rate that topped 13% last month, employers realize the added responsibilities at home could push some valuable employees to leave their jobs, especially if they are able to take care of the kids while living off their spouse’s salary. “I don’t think there’s a day that’s passed that I haven’t heard concern about talent drain because in this period, traditional assumptions have flown out the window,” said John Bremen, a managing director at HR consulting firm Willis Towers Watson. “Interestingly, I’ve heard far more concern about that than statements that ‘talent is fungible.’ That myth is very clear to [chief human resource officers].” The risk of losing good employees may become most acute when employers ask people to physically return to the workplace. To help with that transition, 86% of employers said they are offering or considering offering flexible hours, according to a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. Seventy-one percent of them said they may allow full-time remote work for parents. And 63% said they may offer reduced working hours – presumably for less pay. Bremen said companies are trying to make accommodations based on the age of employees’ children since the demands on parents’ time and energy differ depending on whether they have infants and toddlers, grade school kids or teenagers. “Companies are getting granular and saying, ‘Let’s look at what they need and what we can do – for example, job sharing or flexible hours or staggered schedules. They’re pulling out all the stops,” he said. But for some employees, Bremen acknowledged, “None of these work at all. People need the time away from work. So how do we create that?” Some companies are offering either paid or unpaid leave or some combination of the two to support their employees who are caregivers. And they’ve worked to eliminate the stigma around taking the time off, Bremen added. PwC, for instance, has a generous vacation policy on top of paid holidays and sick days. And the firm also offers an unlimited number of family sick days that caregivers can take as needed. The tug of war for women at home While all working parents have seen their burdens increase during the pandemic, research suggests that working mothers typically spend more time on caregiving and housework than men. A recent survey from LeanIn.org, the women-at-work advocacy group created by Sheryl Sandberg, found that women report spending an average of 71.2 hours a week on household chores and caregiving since the onset of the pandemic, while men report 51.5 hours. Trying to balance family and work at home during a pandemic without help can be especially hairy. “It’s a constant source of stress that you’re letting your kids down. I’ve had kids crying in front of me saying, ‘Can’t you shut your computer?!’” said Linda Lautenberg, cofounder of Evolve Me, a professional development company for mid-career women. She and her business partner, Judy Schoenberg, also a mother, say they now often resume work from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. after everyone else has gone to bed. For them and many of their clients, Schoenberg said, “the dominant feeling is being overwhelmed.” If school and child care don’t come online by fall, parents may have to make hard choices over whose job will take priority while the other person becomes the primary caretaker. “One of you has to be nimble and flexible,” Lautenberg said. To the extent one’s husband makes more money or requires him to be on site for work, it’s more likely the wife will take on more responsibilities at home or, if need be, step back from her job, Schoenberg noted. The same can be true with exes. Kristen Carbone, a divorced mother of two, co-parents with her ex-husband. But Carbone has assumed most childcare duties in this period since her ex makes more money. Her days often start at 4:30 am – well before her kids get up – to work on her startup, Brilliantly, which will soon launch a product to help with discomfort from post-mastectomy breast reconstruction. “It’s a constant juggling of priorities and needs,” Carbone said. She’s bracing for the prospect that her kids might not be able to return to school in September – and anticipating the exhaustion ahead if she has to continue home schooling or arrange communal ways to share caretaking duties with other parents as safely as possible during a pandemic.