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Why Supporting Working Parents is a Wellbeing Issue

When I launched Leaders Plus 8 years ago my mission was to support ambitious, career-focused people to achieve their goals without having to sacrifice time with their family. 

I designed a global, multi-award-winning programme which has resulted in career progression for more than 60% of our alumni within 9 months of completion, many of whom have achieved this whilst working flexibly. By all accounts, our work focuses on career progression for working parents. 

But, pretty quickly I realised that our Fellowship was having a profound impact on another area in these working parents’ lives. 

Words like “transformational” or even “life changing were being used to describe the Fellowship and, when we measured it, many spoke of improved wellbeing. 100% reported an improvement in their confidence in balancing their career with looking after their family; 75% reported an increase in satisfaction with their work-life balance. We even ended up winning an award for best wellbeing programme, even though we never mention the word wellbeing in our programme! 

By helping parents develop the core skills they need to be able to flourish both at work and at home, we were helping them to define who they want to be, set more boundaries in their lives and achieve a far better work-life balance. Inadvertently, this was positively impacting their wellbeing. 

I want to share the 6 things I’ve learned about wellbeing for working parents through our work at Leaders Plus. 

1. Putting Your Own Needs First

Have you heard of ‘lopsided caring’? A term coined by Dr Kristin Neff it is the process of caring for others to the exclusion of your own needs – something most of us can relate to! 

Think about the daily decisions and sacrifices we make as working parents: We can’t go to yoga on Sunday morning AND play train set with the toddler. We can’t go to this international conference AND attend the school play. We can’t be at the board presentation AND perform at the annual concert of the choir you love. 

Whilst, from a practical point of view, these ‘either/or’ decisions feel necessary, lopsided caring can harm your health – both mental and physical. 

Neff describes one study in her book Fierce Self Compassion of individuals who’d recently been admitted to hospital for a coronary event, such as a heart attack. They found lopsided carers were more likely to experience continued cardiac symptoms such as chest pain, dizziness, shortness of breath, palpitations etc because they weren’t engaging in enough self-care.

So, finding a way of putting your emergency mask on first – just as you would instinctively prioritise your child’s need in an emergency and or a work-related critical task – is imperative. 

This of course takes practice and as Neff suggests the skill of self-compassion needs to be developed. There are some fantastic resources on Dr Neff’s website to help with this. 

And, if you are a self-confessed workaholic I highly recommend Dr Malissa Clark’s book Never Not Working, which gives some excellent tactics for those who find conventional strategies for switching off ineffective. 

2. Finding Your Purpose

There’s a quote by Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl, that sticks with me. He said, “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”  Research shows that a strong sense of purpose in life can protect us against depression and increase wellbeing. 

Through our Fellowship, we support working parents to work out their purpose for their career and family life by giving them time and space to focus on their vision, their ‘north star’. It is the starting point of our programme and we return to it time and again over the 9 months. 

So here is something for you to try at home to help define your purpose: 

Step 1: Take 3 sheets of A3 paper, and on the first sheet write the heading ‘What Would My Career and Family Life Look Like If Nothing Was to Stop Me’  

Step 2: Write without judgement for 3 pages. You will find that the first page will come easily with a broad vision of what your life might look like. As you write on you will find yourself redefining your statements with more granular detail about how your life and work can work. 

Step 3: Once you’ve completed the exercise you should be left with a clear picture of your ‘north star’ and ideas of how to make that a reality.  

This exercise is particularly important for working parents because in all likelihood you are a pioneer, operating outside of the conventional mould. Perhaps you are a dad who goes beyond the breadwinner expectations or you are the most senior woman in your organisation on a job-share. If you don’t define your vision, others – your boss, your peers – will do it for you. 

3. Workload

Our research, Career progression gaps: the next frontier, showed workload to be a huge barrier to progression for working parents. 85% of respondents feared that the workload of more senior roles would not be compatible with caring responsibilities with 60% deciding against applying for promotion for the same reason.

But, as Associate Professor Sarah Green Carmichael writes in Harvard Business Review, long hours do not equal productivity. In fact, working long hours can even make you add less value to your organisation whilst positioning you as a reliable workhorse rather than leadership material.  

So, how can we reimagine our work to focus on value rather than volume? Why not dedicate some thinking time to the following exercise? 

Step 1: Identify the overall purpose of your role. What would go missing if this role didn’t exist? This is your added value.  

Step 2: List your objectives and think about what supports your value. Are there any ‘busy tasks’ that aren’t helping your value-add? 

Step 3: Agree with your manager which objectives you need to excel at, and which objectives can be good enough or even disregarded. Now you know where your focus should be.

4. Boundaries

Setting boundaries can be really difficult, especially if you have a tendency to people-please. Research conducted by Professor Vanessa Bohns from Cornell University shows that as a species we’re hard-wired to say “yes” whether we’re asked to perform ‘good’ or ‘bad’ actions. 

However, a feeling of control is a strong driver for happiness and wellbeing. Without setting clear boundaries – and sticking to them! – you may often find yourself in the position, at work or at home, of feeling like you’ve been taken advantage of, but not feeling too sure why.

In fact, not setting boundaries is not just doing a disservice to yourself, it is also not going to help your career in the long term. Professor Laurie Weingart talks about promotable versus non promotable tasks in her book The No Club. Non promotable tasks are things that are important like organising the office party but don’t link to promotions.  Promotable tasks are linked to the big priorities of the organisation and give you the chance to shine in front of senior leaders. According to her research women are more likely to be asked to do non promotable tasks as opposed to men, so just keep that in mind.

Download our Setting Boundaries Workbook for more advice, practical exercises and tips from our fellows and mentors on how to say “no”.

5. Be present when it matters

A topic that comes up a lot in our Fellow community is the impact that conflicting responsibilities have on their sense of wellbeing. The strain of dealing with the demands of work whilst worrying about the little one in nursery or whether you’ll make it back in time for the school run means that it feels almost impossible to give your full attention to the task at hand. 

Similarly, many find it incredibly difficult to switch off from work and be fully present with their children, especially with emails accessible at all times from the devices in our back pocket.  Their wellbeing is affected by spreading themselves too thin. They report feeling inadequate as an employee and a parent, unable to fully invest themselves in either role at any one time. 

Unsurprisingly, this is predominantly an issue that impacts mothers the most. According to data from the Pew Research Centre, 47% of mothers surveyed in the US feel that being a parent is stressful or tiring all or most of the time. This is compared to just 34% of fathers. In fact, in almost all categories, the mothers carry a heavier physical and mental load compared to fathers. 

Such an imbalance in caring responsibilities sets women up for a more difficult ascent in their career. Addressing this imbalance in parenting roles is as important as providing the opportunities for growth at work which is why our Leaders Plus Fellowship is open to all genders. It’s also crucial for the mental health of mothers. 

One tip from our Fellowship community is to focus on small chunks of time. So, when you’re with your child, just following what the child is interested in for 5 minutes, looking at what the child is looking at and tuning into their world, can help to shift your perception that you’re constantly preoccupied with work. 

At work, you could try setting a 30 minute timer to focus purely on the task in front of you. When that time is up, you can then send that quick email to school or make that appointment that’s been on your to do list. 

6. Courage

It is very possible that you already know what you need to do to get your wellbeing to a place. It might be that conversation to have or that boundary to set. When I looked at why the Fellowship was so transformational, it was always because Fellows had taken these small incremental steps. 

Ultimately, it takes courage to make change, no matter how small, especially if we feel like we’re doing it on our own. Our advice is always to work with your support network to make change happen. Talk to your partner if you have one, or your close personal friends and family and enlist their help. Be open with your manager if that is available to you, or seek out a mentor or sponsor to bounce ideas off. 

 

I’d like to finish by saying that if you manage working parents in your team, remember that they (and anyone else with additional responsibilities outside or work) are the canaries in your goldmine. If the balance is not right in your organisation then working parents are often the first to feel it. So, use them as your barometer and keep the lines of communication open. That way, you might just develop a flourishing team that are more likely to stay and be more productive at the end of the day.

 

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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