Balancing work and family life is the norm. ONS figures for the UK show that over 1 million more Mothers re-joined the workforce in the last 20 years, largely driven here by financial imperative during the economic downturn and the introduction of Government-subsidised childcare funding. More and more families retain or recover dual income status; many take advantage of flexible working arrangements, whilst others lean heavily on additional childcare support to allow both parents to work full time. But there can be a very real health impact for working parents, of having this ‘have it all’ lifestyle.
Physically, parenting routines are demanding. In the early years and infancy, sleep deprivation is the norm. In our long-hours’ culture, the pace of work is relentless, working late, and ‘out of office’ availability may be assumed, meaning that many parents operate virtually 24/7, in one domain or the other. This inevitably takes its toll on rest and sleep. Fatigue and exhaustion are common, both of which significantly depress our immunity. Childcare settings and workplaces can both be hotbeds of viral contagion, so being in these environments whilst susceptible to illness can translate into a phenomenon of ‘perpetual sickness’, where there is always at least one family member suffering some form of bug. The more tired we are, and the less rest and recovery we permit ourselves, the greater the risk of secondary infections, such as chest and sinus infections. Viral illness (common colds, flu, coughs and the like) is cited by the ONS as among the top 5 key reasons for sickness absence in the UK.
Working parents are also less likely to find the time and energy for physical self-care strategies, like exercise and good nutrition. Whilst children provide us with a great incentive to get outdoors, to prepare and serve fresh, healthy food, all too often working parents end up snacking on the kids’ leftover fish-fingers, or collapsing prone on the sofa at the end of each day, versus taking any meaningful exercise. And so, our fitness and vitality further decline.
Outside these physical issues, our mental wellbeing can be at risk. The mental and emotional demands of trying to function effectively for long hours, on depleted energy, is a major stressor in itself. Working parents are challenged to perform at their best in two very different domains – work and family – over sustained periods. Moreover, each domain exists separately and independently of the other: they run in parallel, yet with minimal harmony or coordination between the two. Often there is direct conflict between the needs and demands of one and the other, and any experience of conflict or dissonance creates significant stress. At work, we often do our best to behave as if family doesn’t exist; we may occasionally indulge in water-cooler conversations with colleagues about our family life, our children, but they are otherwise invisible. We are concerned to avoid any suspicion or suggestion that our commitment to work, to performing well has been compromised. And so we hide or disguise our role as a Parent, in the workplace: we separate and divide those two essential parts of ourselves. We may also carry the burden of guilt, of never quite matching up to expectations in either domain.
What is the solution?
The problem is complex and systemic, and therefore solutions must extend to both domains: both Work and Family. In particular, Employers need to do more to recognise and support working parents through transitional phases (pregnancy, parental leave, managed return arrangements, flexible working adaptations). At home we need to develop structures and routines that allow us space for rest and recovery, including offline time.
Seeking extra help and support around the family is crucial. It takes a village to raise a child, not just one or two exhausted working parents.
Most importantly, working parents need to take ownership for diagnosing issues and directing solutions. And they need to be rooted in our minds, first and foremost: in our own expectations of ourselves. Because a depleted, burnt-out Parent is not an effective parent. And a sick, stressed Employee, is not an effective employee. Our health and wellbeing has to be a priority, if only for our children’s sake, and we need to place sufficient emphasis on learning effective strategies to protect and maintain it.