The pandemic has turned everyone’s world upside down. For working parents, the last year or so has brought changes to both their home and their working lives—often creating tensions between the two.
Some parents have had to adjust to working at home while also overseeing their children’s education. As a result, they’ve found themselves juggling the roles of employee, caregiver, teacher, and homemaker. Remote working is enough of a change in itself—but when you throw parenting into the mix, the challenge is multiplied.
In this post, we’ll look at some things you can do as a parent to safeguard your mental well-being in the post-pandemic world—whether that means remote work, returning to the office, or a mix. Then we’ll move on to things you can do for parents as an employer, HR leader, or manager.
Set and maintain boundaries
As the saying goes, nobody should live rent-free in your head. But your thoughts about work can easily become too dominant—particularly if you really care about your job, or love what you do.
For the sake of self-care, you need to build some walls around your inner self, so work doesn’t invade every aspect of your life.
This is hardest if you’re working remotely, since your work has literally moved into your home. But even if you’re back in the workplace—or if you never left—you might still need to firm up your boundaries. The last two years have been tough on everyone, and parents have enough on their plates to begin with.
To protect your time for unwinding and re-energizing, designate “do not disturb” hours, during which you won’t respond to (or even look at) any work communications.
For parents of young kids, some times of day are hectic, while others offer an oasis of calm—and they don’t always dovetail with the rhythm of the regular working day. Aim to set up your working day so it goes with the flow of family life, instead of trying to swim against the tide. Know the times when you have both time and focus, and make the most of them.
Let people know
Next, make sure your colleagues know when your “do not disturb” times are. If you have a shared calendar, you can enter them as “busy.” If you’re working remotely, explain that you need proper home time, as well as working-from-home time.
This time doesn’t need to be justified or explained. It’s nobody’s business whether you’re catching up on work, taking the kids to the park, or just lying exhausted on the sofa. This is your time, to use as you wish.
Obviously, the more responsibility you have, the harder it becomes to step away. But equally, if you’re valued by the organization or have a senior role, that puts you in a stronger position to take control of your schedule.
For many people, setting boundaries is hard because they feel a strong need to please others, or worry about being seen as “difficult.” As a parent, you may also worry that you could be accused of asking for special treatment or trying to exploit your family situation to gain a workplace benefit.
But if you look around your workplace, you’ll probably see plenty of others who are unapologetically setting their own rules and making it stick. You can too.
Go easy on yourself
Self-care means exactly what it says. You have to take responsibility for your own well-being. As a working parent, that means thinking carefully about the standards that you set for yourself in terms of your paid-for work, caregiving, and the balance between the two.
Right now, everybody deserves to be cut a little slack—and that includes you. Don’t try to power on through each day like a machine. Just having kids and a job is tough enough, even without the stress of a pandemic and everything that goes with it.
If you were previously working in an office, you may have become used to achieving a certain level of productivity, day in, day out. Don’t worry if you can’t reach that level anymore. That was the “before” state—but now we’re definitely in the “after” phase. And we may never go back to the way things were.
Try to embrace this season for what it can bring. Instead of dwelling on what you’ve lost, or want to regain, focus on the positive impact of this change in dynamic.
Being a working parent is all about balancing priorities. If you’re not careful, you can easily get into a sort of tug-of-war where both your family and your colleagues or clients are depending on you. If you’re working at home, you could wind up dealing with unexpected interruptions from both sides.
When you’re in the thick of parenting, it’s easy to imagine that everyone at work knows what you’re going through. They don’t. They are—quite naturally—focused on their own problems and priorities, and merely expecting you to play your part. And they’re not thinking that deeply about how their request to “just hop on a Zoom” at 4:45 p.m. might come across.
The first person to communicate with is yourself. Have a talk with yourself about what you can realistically do. Focus on the things you can control—for example, you can’t stop emails from arriving, but you can choose when to look at them.
Be realistic. Whatever you commit to, it has to be sustainable. You may be able to pull out all the stops to hit a deadline from time to time, but you can’t keep the needle in the red day in, day out.
Then, once you’re clear on your own capacity, work to make it clear to others. Colleagues need to understand that you can’t drop everything for work. And on the flip side, your family also needs to understand that your work has its own demands, and they can’t always be delayed.
Don’t expect everything to fall into place every day. Establishing balance will take some time, and a little work. But by sitting down and talking things through, you can make sure everyone is on the same page.
Build sources of support
Every parent needs a helping hand from time to time. To stop yourself from feeling alone, think about all the communities you’re a member of. For example, family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. Is there anyone you could help out, and get some help in return?
During the pandemic, “pods” or “bubbles” brought people together to offer support with day-to-day tasks—most significantly, homeschooling children.
Hiring out household tasks will certainly lighten the load, although not everyone’s finances will stretch to it. If you’re a keen homemaker, you may need to relax your standards of tidiness a little bit—at least until things are more normal again.
The employer’s perspective: how to promote a culture of flexibility for working parents
What support can employers and managers offer to their employees who are parents?
In difficult times, aim to lead with compassion. Without putting parents ahead of everyone else, appreciate the position they’re in. Their time and attention are constantly being pulled in two directions—both of which are equally valid and important to them.
So if someone needs to reschedule a meeting, or to take a day off at short notice, be flexible and understanding. To prevent non-parents from feeling resentful, explain to everyone that you’re relaxing the rules—at least for the time being.
Look at options to offer flex time, if you don’t already. A later start in the morning could really help a parent who needs to get their kids to school, while flexibility around the end of the school day will help too.
Revisit vacation policy
Parents will often need to take days off—not for themselves, but so they can cover unavoidable family responsibilities. Then, if their vacation days start to run low and they’ve had minimal time to themselves, they’ll feel awful. Or they could work themselves into the ground trying to avoid taking time off. Either way, this sort of stress on parents is a recipe for burnout.
To prevent it, consider adopting a more progressive, open-ended vacation policy, so your employees don’t use up the majority of their days off without ever getting a break. This more enlightened sort of vacation policy can really ease the burden for parents.
Taking a softer line on vacation time shows that you trust your people, which helps them to trust you in turn. What you lose in working time today, you’ll gain in motivation and loyalty further down the line.
We’ve all been in the meeting that could have been an email. To make things easier for parents, ease off on meetings and focus on non-time-critical modes of communication.
One of the few silver linings of the pandemic has been showing us that we don’t necessarily have to get everyone together in a room to hold a discussion or make a decision. Asynchronous forms of collaboration work just fine—and the extra thinking time is very often a good thing. For parents, the ability to respond at a time of their own choosing is a godsend.
If you hold a Zoom, make it optional to use a camera—or explicitly set it up as a “group call” rather than a “meeting.” Unless you need to share a screen, voice alone is perfectly adequate for most purposes. And it releases remote workers from the feeling that they need to make themselves “presentable” just for a ten-minute appearance on a screen.
Offer a helping hand
Mental health platforms and resources offer an affordable, accessible way to offer your workers a much-needed helping hand.
These tools can’t replace your personal leadership and support—nor do they negate the importance of organizational structure, company culture, and managing workloads. However, they can give employees some practical tools for self-care, and show them that you understand what they’re going through. Even if people feel OK right now, mental health resources can build resilience for when the going gets tough.
In fact, just the acknowledgment that their troubles are real, and that you care about them, will be a huge help. All your employees will appreciate that—but parents in particular.
You could also look at ways to help parents get together—for example, with a parents’ resource group hosted on Slack or another collaboration platform. Don’t wait for the parents themselves to do it—get out in front of this and start it yourself. Again, this shows your people that you care about them, and that you fully support their mental well-being.
To learn more about the topics in this post, check out 8 Practical Strategies for Work-From-Home Resilience and Everything You Need to Know About Burnout at Work.