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Why are tensions so high among working parents?

Half of all women and one-third of men responding to the first Australian National Working Families Survey reported feeling under a lot or a great deal of stress while 62% of respondents reported looking after their own wellbeing as their major challenge.  This corresponds with the 2019 UK Modern Families Index, where nearly half of UK respondents said that work affected their relationship with their partner and their physical wellbeing.

We also see this picture daily in our coaching programmes for working mothers and fathers both in Australia and the UK. Considering our programme participants are working for employers who have been willing to invest in a course designed to support their employees juggle work and family responsibilities, we are perhaps not even seeing the most extreme cases – after all our participants work for the good guys!

So why, when there is more widespread acceptance of enablers such as flexible working and an increasing focus at work on wellbeing and mental health, are we seeing these tensions in a significant percentage of working families? Predictably there are many reasons but based on what we regularly see from the working parents we coach across the UK, Nordics and Australia some of the contributing factors include:

Firstly, guilt and judgement play a big role in undermining parents’ and in particular women’s confidence in the way they are choosing to combine being a parent and having a career and this has a huge impact on wellbeing. There is an idealised view that good parenting means being constantly present and available (especially for mums), which society still largely reinforces. School hours, for example, remain very much structured around a world where one parent was at home. Working parents often feel like they are absent when the irony is that research shows parents in most Western countries actually spend twice as much time with their children now than parents did in the 1960s. Conversely, this same pressure on presenteeism and being always available also permeates many working environments. Unsurprisingly then working parents end up trying to give one hundred per cent of themselves to their careers and to their children, to the detriment of prioritising or even acknowledging their own needs and wellbeing.

Demographic changes and strong changes in preferences are also a source of tension. Millennial parents are less tolerant of the traditional model of work and want to prioritise family time. Tensions arise where working cultures haven’t yet caught up with either policy or wider cultural changes. For example, the Australian National Working Families Survey showed “men faced more barriers accessing flexible work, citing the reason for this being the potential negative impact it might have on their career and reputation” yet more access to flexible working was listed as the thing that would most help respondents manage work and family more effectively.

This desire by millennials work differently and if necessary deprioritise careers came out very clearly in the UK Modern Families Index and is really something that should make employers sit up and take note. The potential loss or underutilisation of talent is staggering if employers don’t respond with working environments that enable millennial parents to fulfil the roles they want to play at work and at home.

“Millennial parents are more likely than older parents to weigh up their options, even when controlling for the age of the youngest child. This is part of a wider picture when considered alongside other findings: millennial parents are more likely to be considering downshifting, reducing their hours or taking pay cuts to obtain a better balance between work and family life.” 2019 UK Modern Families Index

Dual income families face tensions as they figure out how to make things work equally at home and at work when there are still many practical barriers to allowing that happen. I’ve written and spoken previously about sharing the mental load and how couples can start to overcome the often default position of women shouldering the bulk of household work in addition to paid work and men being seen as ‘helpers’ rather than equal partners.

However, where there is also tension and one of the things that exacerbates the mental load falling to women is that financially it frequently just doesn’t make sense to share care equally. Parental leave pay is still often only enhanced for mothers and not fathers or secondary carers. This means that for a father to take advantage of shared parental leave they are often making a financial sacrifice that the family cannot sustain over a period of several months.

Consequently, although fathers are very clearly saying they want to be more involved as parents, the financial barriers to them doing so are very real.  In the UK where shared parental leave has been in place since 2015, take-up is estimated to be as low as 2% of eligible parents, however, some employers such as Aviva have unilaterally acted and equalised parental leave pay, seeing take-up increase to 67% of new dads in the first year. Likewise, we have recently seen Allens Linklaters in Australia announcing an industry-leading parental leave program of 18 weeks that does away with distinctions between primary and secondary caregivers and hits pause on billable targets for parents returning to work. This demonstrates that the demand is very clearly there, and smart employers are catching on with policies that not only support gender parity but address the preferences of their workforce.

So, where does this leave us? Is it harder for working parents today than in previous generations? I suspect that every generation had challenges and what we are seeing now are the tensions caused by a huge transition from traditional working norms, cultures and structures to ones that embrace the needs of more diverse workforces and are less delineated along gender lines. Work and our relationship with it is changing but that change isn’t yet happening universally at a pace that is keeping up with the needs of modern families.

Virginia Herlihy – CEO and Founder, How Do You Do It

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