School bus

Students are reflected in the windows of an L.A. Unified school bus as they leave the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies. Shorter school days can be difficult for parents who cannot leave work until hours after their children get out of class. (Los Angeles Times)

It's back-to-school time and parents' worries abound. Will the new teacher be any good? Will my child have friends in the new class? Will budget cuts limit the offerings in art, music or sports?

There's one worry that's universal: Are my kids safe after school?

The combination of shorter school days and the lack of after-school child care creates a mismatch for many full-time employed parents, especially mothers. Imagine that you have a child whose school day ends at

2 p.m. but you don't get home until 6 p.m. or later. So, for about 25 hours each week, you are on edge about your child's welfare while you try to concentrate on your job.

In these cost-cutting times, the number of after-school programs is shrinking, school libraries and many playgrounds are no longer open after school, and city streets are increasingly unsafe. For children ages 9 to 11, 10.5% are in "self-care" after school, according to 2011 census data. For children 12 to 14 years old, the figure is 32.7%. Unsupervised teenagers are vulnerable to many risky behaviors, such as drugs, alcohol, sexual acting out and crime.

One of us — Barnett — conducted a study of parental concerns about after-school time, and found some troubling patterns. The survey involved 1,755 parents employed full time who had a spouse/partner who also worked full time (44.7% fathers, 55.3% mothers). Only one parent in a couple was interviewed; all interviewees worked at one of three U.S. Fortune 100 companies.

Among the findings was that parental concern was high when work hours were long, parents had little control over work schedules and children spent time unsupervised after school. Not surprisingly, higher levels of concern were associated with more job disruptions. Parents found themselves unable to concentrate. It is hard to focus on your job when you're anxious about your children's well-being after school. Mothers' traditional role as the caregiver made them more vulnerable to these kinds of worries. Parents who had high concerns also reported high levels of anxiety and depression.

This is a problem that parents — again, especially mothers — can't easily solve on their own. Too many parents put together a "patchwork quilt" of caretakers — neighbors, friends, relatives, sitters. Often, such arrangements fall apart at the last minute. Heightened stress and anxiety are the result. One single mother we interviewed had arranged for her kids to stay with a neighbor. But the kids didn't like the neighbor's children and hated going there. Every day there was a battle, with the mother feeling guilty and torn. But it was their only option.

Research tells us that employers can do much to help relieve some of this burden. When employees have control over their schedules, for example, they are less likely to experience high levels of concern. More than three-fourths of the respondents to Barnett's study said that the flexibility to arrive at work later, leave work earlier or take off part of a workday when necessary significantly reduces concern levels.

Many other nations offer a variety of after-school options, and it's absurd that the U.S. lags behind much of the world in this area. In France, for example, the school day often doesn't end until 6 p.m.

Yet workplace supports — when they do exist — are effective only if employees know about them and feel comfortable using them. Barnett's study found that many parents are not aware that certain supports are available. And if they do know about them, they often fear that taking time off and using flexible work arrangements could jeopardize opportunities for advancement. Other research shows that even women and men in leadership positions feel that using flexible work arrangements could jeopardize their careers.

These parental concerns also have serious consequences for employers. By some estimates, workplace stress costs companies $50 billion to $300 billion each year in lost productivity. About 2.5 million working parents are overly stressed by after-school concerns and are likely to bring them to the workplace. These concerns are exacerbated for the parents who have more responsibility for child care in the household, who work longer hours and whose children are older (grades 6-12) because these kids tend to spend more time unsupervised.

There's a fledgling movement to create and expand after-school programs, but effective programs are few and far between. In fact, such programs and policies are often not costly to implement. Compared with the huge losses for companies because of employees' stress and anxiety over this issue, the cost of providing secure after-school environments is trivial.

We all have a stake in helping working parents be as productive on the job as possible. We can't get there if constant worry about their children is draining parents' energies and diverting their attention. Happily, a win-win scenario is cheap and close at hand — if we only have the will to create it.

Rosalind C. Barnett is a senior scientist at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University and Caryl Rivers is a journalism professor at Boston University. They are the authors of the forthcoming book, "The New Soft War on Women."