Parental burnout can be reflected in the workplace

It's school holiday time — "juggle time" for working parents.

It is challenging enough for those of us living in Level 2 regions, but spare a thought for those in locked-down Auckland.

Distracted and stressed parents do not perform at their best in the workplace, particularly if they are suffering from “parental burnout”.

Parenting involves visible and invisible tasks

To be honest, every day is a juggle for working parents. In term time there is possibly more to do — extra-curriculars, appointments, errands.

Such visible tasks are only a portion of the working parent gig. The rest is in the mental, logistical and emotional labour of running a family and a household.

Mothers often keep a running dialogue in their head: "Do I need to get the drier fixed or can I rely on the spring weather? Did we get more eggs? Is she having too much sugar in her lunch? Has his sports uniform been washed? Is it too damp to mow the lawn? Does the recycling go out tomorrow? Have I paid the car rego? When do I need to take Mum to the doctor/the cat to the vet? Can I make time to coach that team/be on that committee?" and so on.

This side of parenting is a four-part process. It starts with anticipating household needs, identifying options for fulfilling those needs, deciding which options to choose and checking back to make sure what’s been decided gets implemented. It is difficult to stop as it feels like you are "on loop".

Parenting is for life

Each age and stage has its own challenges.

Pre-schoolers are more physically demanding but often early childhood care facilities operate over a full work day.

Schools in New Zealand commonly finish at 3pm — what do you do with the kids afterwards? Teenagers can get around by themselves but parents don’t always know where they are or who they are with.

Sons and daughters are now living at home longer, due to increased living costs. Grandparents are being expected to provide more child care.

It’s hard for all parents as it is not a job you can quit. It’s especially hard for single parents and families living away from extended whanau. This separation has been exacerbated by Covid travel restrictions.

Founder of The Burnout Project and author of Burnout Your First Ten Steps, Dr Amy Imms, adds that “parents of children with special needs, parents with past or current mental illness, parents with perfectionist tendencies ... are [also] at particular risk".

Parental burnout is real

The term “burnout” is usually associated with high-flying careers — people who work long, long hours and sacrifice their life for career success.

However, parental burnout was first identified in the early 1980s. It has been described as “an exhaustion syndrome, characterised by feeling physically and mentally overwhelmed by their role as a parent” by researchers Isabelle Roskam and Moira Mikolajczak. So it is important for parents and their employers to put strategies in place to deal with the signs before total burnout sets in.

Research has shown that working parents are often the most efficient employees at work — the old adage “if you want something done give it to a busy person” rings true. However, there will always be more things to do than time to do them.

When our employees get stuck in a reactive cycle of worrying about ticking things off, they can get more overwhelmed, even as things get ticked off the list.

Preventing burnout

Parents need to monitor their own expectations of what they are trying to achieve at home. Guilt is something we put upon ourselves. Be realistic about what we can achieve, relax our standards and give ourselves permission to ask for help. Here, another adage rings true: “it takes a village to raise a child”.

It is our responsibility to put support and contingency mechanisms in place which will help, but don’t forget your invisible list. It is one thing to ask someone to cook dinner, but who has shopped for the food and planned the menu?

As working parents we tell ourselves we are role modelling independence and a hard work ethic to our kids. But we need to reinforce this by giving them responsibilities at home, too.

Sometimes we try to lessen our guilt by buying them things, but spending quality time with them is more valuable.

To do this, we need to monitor what is expected of us at work. Are the hours and extra responsibilities being asked of us reasonable? We need to consider our boundaries and discuss them with our employers and team members.

That is all very easy to say, but can it be done? To avoid burn out, parents need to work in environments that enable these boundaries to be put in place and supported on an ongoing basis. This applies to all levels of an organisation, leaders too.

Obviously, employers do not control what goes on in their employees’ homes. But they can control how their work environment affects the stress levels of working parents. Here are a few ideas for employers to address parental burnout:

- Visibly show gratitude: Parenting is often a thankless task so being visibly valued by your employer can help parents to keep feeling positive. Perhaps offer to pay for child care or home help as form of bonus. Subscriptions to services like Hello Fresh are another option.

- Know what it looks like: Symptoms include extreme frustration, constant exhaustion, difficulty handling tasks, foggy brains and anxiety. Warning signs of burnout often creep up slowly and what stresses out one parent will not worry another parent as much. Some parents will be overly stressed because they have difficult children or children with learning difficulties. Others have very easy children but are overly stressed because they set high expectations.

- Raise awareness: Many working parents at your organisation might not know about parental burnout. Help educate employees by adding it as a topic in your workplace wellness programme. It is a recognised condition so going to see a GP or a counsellor may be appropriate.

- Enable flexibility: This helps working parents to achieve a positive work-life balance and is one of the top perks employees seek in an employer. Plan to keep meetings short and at times that suit the whole team, including part-timers. Put "do-not-disturb" blocks on emails that apply outside normal working hours.

- Establish an accepting culture: Working parents need to feel supported by their employer. Encourage open communication among your team.

Let them know that they will not be judged for trying to keep up with family responsibilities. As many leaders are working parents themselves, it is a good opportunity to connect with employees on the same level.

Parents, if you find yourself not being able to find any moments of joy in parenting and you are emotionally distancing from your kids, you might be heading towards parental burnout.

Mark your boundaries openly to your children, say “I need a break” and practise some self-care: a game of golf, a long bath, some adult-only socialising. It’s OK to not be able to “do it all”.

Employers, with a little empathy and flexibility, you can help alleviate the stress felt by working parents and improve their wellbeing. This will in turn foster a happier, more engaged and productive work environment.

- Kate Hesson is director of Hesson Consultancy.

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