10 ways organizations can support working parents and ensure that their employees are successful at both work and home.
Finding the perfect work-life balance is a challenge for everyone, but today's working parents have more on their plate than ever—leaving many to ask: Why is working and raising a family so hard?
Since the onset of the pandemic, various factors have transpired. While the stressors of lockdowns, school closures and vaccinations for children have mostly dissipated, several deep-rooted economic fractures are continuing to put pressure on working parents. The childcare shortage, inflation, and an oncoming recession make it seem almost impossible to find that all-important work-life equilibrium.
By definition, work-life balance is the amount of time you spend doing your job compared with the amount of time you spend with your family and doing things you enjoy. Crucially, however, work-life balance looks different for every parent. It relies on factors around their job, such as role, responsibility and hours, and their circumstances at home, such as the age of their children, support network and more.
However, working parents' work-life balance is delicate and subject to change at a moment's notice. There may be days, weeks, months or even years when work looms larger and other times when employees must focus more on their family. Additionally, with remote work as the new normal, employees can feel constantly tethered to their work, which makes prioritizing work-life balance more important than ever.
Organizations can support working parents and ensure that their employees are both successful at work and home. However, much of the conversation centers on how hard work-life balance is to achieve and puts the onus on the individual to correct the imbalance—when the truth is, some people just have too much work, too many responsibilities or not enough support.
Making Remote Work
Over the past two years, ensuring employees have work-life balance has been a key part of creating a healthy work environment. When work and life aren't balanced, there can be major ramifications, ranging from burnout and lower productivity to physical illness and higher rates of attrition.
The pandemic has already taken a toll on Americans' physical and mental health, and a lack of work-life balance may be contributing to the major increase in stress and anxiety over the last two years. Further, remote workers are more likely to work longer hours and work nights and weekends, which means they are unable to disconnect fully from their jobs on their devices, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).
Poor work-life balance may also be contributing to trends in employment and attrition. As the Great Resignation continues, record numbers of workers are still leaving their jobs—and some are citing burnout and a lack of flexibility as key reasons for quitting.
While many people struggle with the complexities of work-life balance, working parents face a unique set of difficulties, often compromising either work or life to be able to do both. Working parents have to navigate the constantly changing status of the pandemic, uncertainty about school and childcare schedules, the cost of childcare amid a shortage, and financial anxiety. This lack of support at home has serious consequences. A 2022 Pew Research study found that roughly half of workers who recently quit their jobs point to childcare issues as the reason.
Because women bear more of the childcare burden, their work-life balance has been disproportionately affected. This has led to acute attrition among working moms, with a 6.5% decline in working mothers in the labor force between 2020 and 2021, according to the 2021 Census.
Recognizing Work-Life Imbalance
If your employees have a work-life imbalance, they're not alone—a recent survey by Indeed showed that more than half of employees are feeling burnt out from work, and more than two-thirds think their burnout got worse through the pandemic.
Here are a few signs of work-life imbalance to look for in employees:
Bringing work home. If employees are logging on early and working late, it's a sign there may be a lack of boundaries with their work. The rise in remote work has had many benefits—less time commuting, more flexibility, and a more personalized work schedule—but these benefits have also made it harder to create a clear division between working hours and personal hours.
Physical symptoms of exhaustion or distress. Stress and burnout don't just affect mood and emotional state—there can be physical consequences. When people are experiencing work-life imbalance, it can lead to consistently elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can have detrimental effects on health, including digestive problems, sleep issues, muscle tension and pain, and weight gain. Employees may mention physical symptoms of stress or that they are feeling drained or tired during meetings, which may indicate a risk of work-life imbalance and burnout.
A constant feeling of stress. A warning that someone's work-life balance is in jeopardy is a nonstop sense of urgency and stress. This can take the form of stress dreams about work, increased anxiety before the work week or “Sunday scaries," or difficulty focusing on non-work friends and family. Work stress has been normalized, but that doesn't mean it should go unaddressed.
How to Support a Better Work-Life Balance
Despite the focus on self-care in conversations around work-life balance, these issues require much more thoughtful and proactive solutions. Employees need better working conditions, clearer communication around expectations and improved mental health support.
Here are 10 ideas to help improve your employees' work-life balance:
1) Encourage employees to define what balance means for them. If employees are feeling burnt out, it can help to brainstorm better working conditions and communicate about what would be most beneficial for their specific needs.
2) Negotiating family-friendly work arrangements. To make sure employees have time to focus and complete their work, offering flexibility for employees with children at home or even having no-meeting days weekly can give your employees some much-needed time back in the day.
3) Cultivate a culture of leaving work behind at the end of the day. Set firm boundaries with work to ensure time for family, friends and fun, and proactively encourage your employees to do the same. There may be times when an employee has to work late or take on more work, but these instances should be exceptions to the rule, not the norm.
4) Create space to ask for help. Set the tone that it's OK to not be OK all the time and get overwhelmed. Being open to providing support and assistance when they ask will make employees feel seen in a difficult time.
5) Check in often about workload and burnout. Set up a recurring meeting with employees to discuss how they're feeling about their workload—what they like, what they would rather not have on their plate and if they're experiencing any signs of burnout. These meetings should be open conversations in which the employee can bring up any concerns or questions about their assignments.
6) Offer virtual mental and physical health support. To provide comprehensive support for parents, employers can offer virtual mental and physical health care with providers who can meet them when they need them. Health support that is accessible and easy to use is crucial for working parents who may be pressed for time and not have room in their schedule to make it to a doctor's office.
7) Give employees PTO for vacations and mental health days. Only 60% of Americans say they took at least a week of vacation in the past year, up from 44% in 2021 who said the same, according to a recent survey by Allianz Partners USA. Encourage and model behavior of taking time off from work, enabling others to leave their work behind.
8) Ask employees to disconnect when they're not at work. Be clear that taking breaks is an essential part of being a good employee. Being “always on" isn't healthy—and it doesn't make anyone more productive. In fact, a 2019 Business Roundtable report showed that people who were able to fully disconnect after work had more energy and better concentration.
9) Advocate for parents in the workplace with a parent-focused employee resource group (ERG). Create a safe space for working parents to build community at work by starting an ERG for parents at your organization. A working parent ERG can provide the resources, emotional support, and networking ERG members may need.
10) Provide parenting and career coaching. Employees juggling the many responsibilities of both work and family may be looking for additional support and guidance. Providing access to specialists who can help working parents navigate how to succeed in both realms of their life can lead to a healthier work-life balance.
Rebecca Lerner is content marketing manager at Maven Clinic.