BlogWorking Parents

How to Deal With a Heavy Workload

“As you go more senior it is more difficult. The workload is extreme and long hours are required. While there are senior leaders with children, often they have nannies and it doesn’t stop them working long hours, which is not something I wish to do, therefore I feel that senior roles are out of bounds” – Quote from a survey respondent to the Big Parent Career Choices Survey 2023

Workload is one of the top barriers to working parents progressing their careers up the ladder. Solving this is a social justice issue: there are consequences if employees cannot fit their other commitments into their week, be that caring for children, taking care of their disability or something else. If we exclude individuals with caring responsibilities from senior leadership roles, our leadership teams will continue to look mainly white and male.

Our research found that half of working mothers feel their childcare role hinders their career progression. Despite that, 86% say they want to progress in their careers. So what is holding them back, and why does it matter?

A key issue is workload, especially the perception that a more senior role will involve a higher workload, which makes it difficult to fulfil the responsibilities of the second shift, which are family and housework.


Graphic stating that 85% of working parents believe that the workload of a senior role would be incompatible with caring responsibilities


Working long hours has nothing to do with productivity

The UK average worker works longer than most other Western European countries,  except Italy, Spain and Portugal who work even longer hours. British people work 14% more hours per year than Germans, and 11% more than the Danes. But even though Brits work more than these other countries, they are less productive. The GDP per capita is higher in all Western European countries than in the UK apart, from Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal.

Being promoted still too often stems from being seen as present in the office. However, the data shows that long hours do not bring about productivity.  

A study from Cambridge University found that reducing the working week from five days to four didn’t impact company revenue, which we can use as a proxy to measure productivity. In other words, reducing working hours by 20% didn’t affect productivity.

Becoming a CEO and Executive Director is possible without regularly working long hours 

I interviewed a number of senior leaders about their workload for the Big Careers Small Children podcast, including Sonia Sudhakar, Managing Director at Royal Mail, Matthew Hayes, Managing Director of Technology from Sage, Dominic Holmes,  Partner at Kilgannon Law or Angela McConville, CEO of NCT, all mentors on the Leaders Plus Fellowship programme. They said that in a senior role, it can be easier to combine childcare responsibilities because you are in charge of your diary. They also said that the workload doesn’t have to be larger, it is just that your accountabilities are more significant and when a crisis hits, you need to be there.

It’s not your fault if there is a workload overwhelm

“The work life balance is not really there – but I manage it by working long hours to the detriment of my health and fitness. Part of it is working mother’s guilt so I do to much on both fronts – Tiger Mum and workaholic.”  – Quote from a survey respondent of the Big Parent Career Choices Survey 2023

If you are experiencing challenges with your workload, remember that it is not your fault. The workplace has been designed for a primary breadwinner and a 1950s housewife who cares for the home and family.

Pioneering realistic working hours can be lonely – get support

Long hours are deeply engrained in many organisational cultures, even though they don’t add greater value. If you want a senior role but do not subscribe to a huge workload and long hours, you are a pioneer, and being a pioneer can be lonely. Try to find allies within your organisation who share your beliefs or a community with like-minded people, such as the Leaders Plus Fellowship.

What our Fellows do to manage their workloads

At a recent event, our Fellow community shared what helps them manage their workload. Here is a small selection of their tips:

  1. “I empower my team to complete the work that is needed to ensure I can delegate with ease – this had a massive impact on my own workload and they seem to enjoy their work more”.
  2. “I block out an ‘Admin Day’ for the first day back from annual leave to clear the inbox. I mark it as annual leave so that people know not to disturb me”.
  3. “I ask myself  ‘Does every task need 100% of my energy?’. I use my energy peaks within the day to focus on the things that do need 100% of my energy and de-prioritise smaller tasks which do not require 100% of my energy until they become a priority”
  4. “I ask ‘What do you want me to de-prioritise?’ when given a task by my director that I have no capacity for. I try to be open and transparent with my Director on what my current priorities are and make a recommendation about what could be deprioritised”
  5. “I now check my emails just 3 times a day – it made a massive difference”
  6. “Coffee Shop Time: once a month I leave all distractions (laptop, phone etc) behind. I head to a coffee shop with pens/paper/notebook to focus on planning. Helps to manage overwhelm, by giving clear sight of what can be delegated.”
  7. “I give consideration to when an email needs to be replied to and use the delay/schedule send function. Everyone is just ‘throwing the monkey off their back’ so the pause slows the pace of the reply back and forth and helps to counter the culture of immediate reply/constant availability.”
  8. “I put one thing in my diary for every day that needs to be completed on that day. Only once that ONE thing has been completed can I start to tick other tasks off my to do list.
  9. “If asked to volunteer or take on something outside of the scope of your role ask ‘Why am I being asked?’, ‘What extra value will I add?’, ‘Does this opportunity get me closer to my goals?.” Keep in mind that Laurie Weingart’s research shows that there are tasks you can volunteer for that are more likely to get you promoted and others that don’t have an impact. According to her research, women disproportionately are asked to volunteer for non-promotable tasks (e.g. organising office parties). Hear more from Laurie on our Big Careers Small Podcast.
  10. “I identified where I have added most value to the organisation’s core priorities in the last six months. This is likely the main purpose of my role. I then came up with what my key deliverables are that will add most value add in the next six months. I then checked with my boss whether she agrees and structure your workplan around this”. Find a blog here on how to talk to your boss about workload.


Most importantly, remember that no one will set boundaries for you. You are the only one that can do that for yourself. For more information on boundary setting, look at our setting boundaries workbook.


Download Leaders Plus Fellowship BrochureFind out more about the Leaders Plus Fellowship, an award-winning 9-month programme to support senior leaders who are also parents. Download the brochure.


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