How working parents can advocate for themselves and others

Why burnout is a systems issue and how to address it
How working parents can advocate for themselves and others
Photo: Suzanne Tucker (Shutterstock)
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Parenting, or leading at home as I like to think about it, is one of the most humbling and complex roles I’ve ever had. Like leadership at work, I seem to be met with a constantly shifting cast of characters (despite only having two children) that didn’t come with an instruction manual, much to my dismay. Unsurprisingly, two-thirds of working parents (pdf) report feeling exhausted and overstressed.

Kelly Fradin, pediatrician, mother of two, and author of Advanced Parenting, suggests that I view the events of leading others as challenges to solve but not problems to fix. Our children, like our employees at work, don’t need fixing. They need understanding.

Fradin says we should look inward and be planful in our approach. “A challenge represents an opportunity for growth; our difficulties can differentiate us and make us who we are; our diagnoses are part of us in a way that can enrich and enhance the way we experience life,” she writes. So whether you’re leading an overachiever, someone neurodivergent, or a procrastinator at home or work, embracing and preparing for the journey is critical.

Quartz at Work: Despite all the data that points to a harried group of individuals, working parents are still largely underserved in the workplace. Why?

Fradin: Despite positive changes in leadership representation and diversity, in most companies, the leadership is male. We know most caregiving responsibilities fall to women. Awareness of the lived experience of the people working for you is essential for a good manager. We tend to assume that most employees need the same support we would want, but that support may vary considerably in many situations. To be an ally to working parents, you can start by being observant and curious.

How does the current state of the workplace make it difficult for employees with children?

The pandemic led to reductions in the available child care forces as well as decreases in school-provided child care, such as after school. Many parents who do shift or hourly work do not know their schedule far in advance or have set hours. While last-minute schedule changes can be unavoidable, this schedule chaos stresses families and is bad for children. Some of the flexibility that emerged during covid, such as the ability to work from home, has been a positive change. Still, many companies are returning to more rigid expectations about coming to the office, which can cause new complications for working parents.

Knowing that two-thirds of working parents are burnt out, what signs should we look for in ourselves or those we lead?

The World Health Organization defines burnout as having three dimensions—reduced professional efficiency, exhaustion, and feelings of negativity or cynicism related to one’s job. The most common symptom is likely irritability. While much of the literature focuses on burnout due to work, specifically paid work outside of the home, parental burnout due to unpaid work within the home is increasingly being recognized.

You agree that burnout is not an employee’s problem to solve but the system’s. What can companies do?

Burnout is a systemic problem, not an individual one. As such, we can’t expect parents to fix their own burnout. Working parents can try to set boundaries to protect their well-being and ability to care for their children. Sometimes the best sort of self-care requires parents to put themself first, to say no more, or accept doing less as still doing enough.

Employee wellness programs can help connect working parents with tangible support such as child care, exercise facilities, and healthcare resources. Healthy workplaces create communities where employees can have coverage from their colleagues in a crisis. Sometimes working parents struggling with burnout may reach a level where they need professional help with depression, anxiety, or substance abuse.

What parent-specific offerings should employers consider?

Tangible supports, such as paid leave, flexible workplace policies, and excellent healthcare and child care benefits, are likely the most effective. But creating a culture that includes employees with extra caregiving responsibilities is also essential. Small acts of kindness can be meaningful, like remembering that someone always has to leave at a specific time for daycare pickup and not tolerating grumbles or eye rolls. Protecting employee time after hours by scheduling emails to send later or clearly giving a sense of when a response is needed can be helpful. Avoid making assumptions—someone with caregiving responsibilities may still want to take on more work even if it is inconvenient, entailing after-hours commitments or travel if it will help their career trajectory and earnings potential.

While burnout is a systems issue, individuals can still take action on their own or advocate for increased support at work. What’s your advice for the employee who wants better from their workplace?

Advocating for what you perceive to be needed accommodations in your workplace is essential to enact positive change. Even if your family may not benefit from accommodations like workplace flexibility, increased sick days, improved pay for family leave, or improved healthcare or fertility benefits, when you know colleagues need them, you can advocate for these (provided you respect their privacy). Often those in decision-making roles do not know what is most needed or what would be most appreciated by staff. Enhancing the visibility of the need to support parents is a way to promote change.